Gov speaks out

Hick defends ed reform, endorses testing bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke on testing Tuesday, flanked by Senate President Bill Cadman (left) and House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst.

Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday said there’s no reason to go back on state education reforms and endorsed a new bipartisan bill that would reduce high school testing and streamline assessments in early grades.

While agreeing the testing system needs some change, he said, “We thought it important to re-emphasize that we are not slowing down” on rolling out recent Colorado education reform efforts.

He repeated that message several times during a Capitol news conference, saying, the politics of the moment and increasing criticism of testing shouldn’t slow down reform.

The governor’s news conference was seen by Capitol observers as a move to shore up support for Senate Bill 15-215, a measure significantly based on the recommendations of the Standards and Assessments Task Force, an advisory group on the issue. (See the bill text here.)

The bill is sponsored by Sens. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. It’s currently scheduled for its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon, although it’s possible the hearing will be delayed. Neither Hill nor Kerr attended Tuesday’s event because the Senate was in session.

Some Democratic and Republican members of the panel have concerns with the bill, mainly that it doesn’t go far enough to reduce testing.

Standing with Hickenlooper at the news conference were Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and House Speaker Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder. Neither spoke.

The governor said he was sure there will be tweaks as the testing bill moves along. Asked what changes to the bill he’d support or oppose, Hickenlooper said, “I don’t have a list of things I’m for or I’m against.”

Hickenlooper was asked about students opting out of tests. He joked that his son, Teddy, came home from testing the other day and asked if he could opt out.

He said he told his son, “There’s nothing to be feared from tests.”

Parents who who don’t want their children to test “are not doing their kids any favors by opting out,” Hickenlooper said.

He also said he doesn’t favor taking Colorado out of PARCC tests.

“Let’s see how it goes,” he said of the Colorado’s participation in the multi-state testing partnership. “To throw something out before you’ve even tried it doesn’t seem to be the wisest course.”

Representatives from several reform and business groups flanked Hickenlooper at the news conference, including Democrats for Education Reform, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Colorado Children’s Campaign and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Hickenlooper claimed the almost-unanimous support of the business community for state education reform programs.

Kelly Brough, a former Hickenlooper aide who now heads the chamber, spoke briefly to stress that Colorado needs a rigorous education system to train a highly skilled workforce of the future.

The Hickenlooper administration has been allied with education reform groups but has not taken as high a profile on education issues as did former Gov. Bill Ritter.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia has been the administration’s point person on education issues. In a December speech to a school boards convention Garcia said Colorado “can’t back down” on education reform (see story). And last week Garcia urged parents not to opt out of state tests (see story).

Seven testing bills have been introduced so far in the 2015 session, including SB 15-215. Additional bills may surface, particularly if support doesn’t coalesce behind the Hill-Kerr proposal. Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, has had a bill drafted but reportedly is holding off until after there’s some movement on SB 15-215.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.