Kicking the can down the road

Senate Education Committee advances three testing bills

The Senate Education Committee labored long into the night over amendments to testing bills.

Two major and significantly different testing bills were approved late Thursday evening by the Senate Education Committee, continuing the uncertainty about where lawmakers are headed on the 2015 session’s top education issue.

The two bills emerged from the panel after a drawn-out hearing that featured nearly six hours of witness testimony and another three hours of committee deliberation, including votes on long lists of amendments.

Senate Bill 15-233 passed on a 5-4 party-line vote, with majority Republicans supporting the measure. Given that it has an $8.4 million price tag, the bill has to be considered next by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Republican-sponsored bill would pull Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests, reduce the number of tests and temporarily revert to old standards and tests until new state standards and tests are adopted. It would also reduce from 50 percent to 15 percent the proportion of an educator’s evaluation that has to be based on student academic growth data.

Senate Bill 15-257 was approved on a 8-1 bipartisan vote, with only Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, voting no. It also goes to the appropriations committee.

Key elements of that second measure include the cutting of state testing to one set of language arts and math tests in high school plus the ACT test, flexibility for districts to use their own tests, the creation of district pilot programs to develop new accountability and assessment systems, the streamlining of early literacy and school readiness assessments and the extension of flexibility for districts in use of student growth data to evaluate teachers.

(Get details on these bills and all other 2015 assessment bills in the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this article.)

The committee’s votes basically kick the final Senate decision on testing down the road. With fewer than 30 days left in the legislative session, SB 15-233 isn’t likely to advance much further, given that it’s probably not acceptable to the Democratic-majority House or to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the House is working on its own testing bill, which proposes even fewer changes than SB 15-257. The House Education Committee heard testimony on a single assessment bill, House Bill 15-1323, on Monday but took no action (see story). The panel is scheduled to take another crack at that bill next Monday.

Testing has proven to be a tough issue for lawmakers, with disagreement both between the House and Senate and within the party caucuses. Legislators also have been subjected to a lot of lobbying, with teachers, districts and some parent groups pushing for significant reforms in the testing system while education reform and some business groups want fewer changes.

For good measure, Senate Education also passed a third testing bill Thursday night, Senate Bill 15-056. It would change the system of social studies tests. The bill passed 9-0, but its future also is uncertain.

One testing bill was killed. Senate Bill 15-073 generally would have reduced state standardized assessments to the minimums required by the federal government and made changes in READ Act and school readiness assessments. It was postponed indefinitely at the request of the sponsor, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs. He said many of its provisions were covered by SB 15-257.

The hearing provided a full-blown airing of the wide range of deeply held views people hold on testing, from parent Lily Tang Williams, who said, “Common Core is communism,” to Leslie Cowell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who said, “I urge you to stay the course on Colorado’s standards and aligned assessments.”

Individual witnesses – there were 47 — included parents, teachers, interest group representatives, business lobbyists, district administrators and more. Testimony was hard to follow at times as different witnesses spoke about different bills.

Representatives of such activist groups as the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Denver Alliance for Public Education, Stop Common Core Colorado and Seeking Equity and Excellence for Kids urged the legislators to reduce state testing and withdraw from Common Core and PARCC.

Some of those testing critics made pointed references to philanthropist Bill Gates and to his funding of education reform efforts, including Colorado advocacy groups.

Speakers representing the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Stand for Children, Colorado Succeeds, Democrats for Education Reform and A+ Denver stressed the importance of maintaining the state’s accountability and assessment systems without major changes.

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.