Just say no

Two small districts set the record for opting out

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

If you want to know where opposition to standardized testing may run deepest, look to Mancos and Buffalo, two rural Colorado districts 472 miles apart on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

The two districts appear to have had the highest opt-out rates on elementary and middle school science and social studies tests given last spring.

“I think it just kind of rose up organically from everybody in the community,” said Mancos Superintendent Brian Hanson.

Testing opposition arose early in the 455-student district – none of the district’s seniors took their science and social studies tests last fall.

“It started with us at that point,” Hanson said, and continued into the spring. “In a small town it doesn’t take very long for that kind of thing to happen.”

Hanson added, “In small communities people place a value in a lot of things, not just test scores. I think there’s more to a kid than that test score. Our community agrees with that.”

Here are Mancos’ opt-out rates: 61.3 percent on 4th grade social studies, 87.2 percent in seventh grade, 60 percent in 5th grade science, 95.8 percent in 8th grade.


Anti-testing sentiment developed somewhat differently in Buffalo, according to Superintendent Rob Sanders. (The 315-student district often is called Merino, after the northeastern plains town where its schools are located. The dual names are the legacy of a long-ago consolidation.)

All of Buffalo’s seniors took social studies and science tests last fall. Sanders said students questioned the value of the tests but were told by the principal that they needed to take them. “We have extremely compliant kids and parents,” Sanders said.

But attitudes started to change in the spring, after word spread of the State Board of Education’s February approval of a resolution exempting districts from any accreditation penalties for low test participation rates. (Social studies and science tests were given in April.)

“We have a firm belief that we are accountable every single day. We believe we can reach our goals with some other type of standardized test,” Sander said.

Here are Buffalo’s opt-out rates: 91.3 percent on 4th grade social studies, 100 percent on 7th grade, 60 percent on 5th grade science, 95.8 percent on 8th grade.


The two districts share rural locations and the same state rating – Accredited, the second-highest level in the state’s five-step system. Nearly 58 percent of Mancos students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 31 percent are minority. Buffalo has 25 percent free and reduced-price lunch enrollment and is about 12 percent minority.

Looking for a better system

Both Mancos and Buffalo are participating in a group of districts called the Rural Innovation Alliance, which is in the early stages of developing what’s called the Student Centered Accountability Project.

The goal is to develop a testing and accountability system that relies on a broader set of factors and data than the current state system, which is heavily reliant on results of statewide tests. (Get more information on the project in these slides.)

The State Board has given the project a preliminary endorsement, and proponents hope the initiative will qualify as a pilot project under the testing law passed by the legislature earlier this year.

“The districts that are involved in this project are very excited about it,” Hanson said. “We think we’re on to something.”

How the “waiver” districts did

One concrete sign of testing dissatisfaction earlier this year was the fact that 27 districts applied to the Department of Education or enquired about waivers from the first part of the PARCC language arts and math tests, which were given in March.

The waiver applications were solicited by the State Board in January. That proved to be an empty gesture because the attorney general ruled that granting waivers was illegal. But as a symbolic gesture the board kept the issue on its agenda for months and didn’t finally deny the waiver applications until May.

Districts’ interest in waiving out of PARCC tests didn’t appear to extend to parent refusals on the science and social studies tests. Only six of the 27 districts had opt-out rates higher than the state averages. In addition to Buffalo, Byers, Elizabeth, Julesburg and Wiley (northwest of Lamar) had significantly higher opt-out rates. Douglas County’s opt-out rates were modestly higher than the state’s.

(Data wasn’t available for some districts, or on some tests for other districts, because the number of students eligible to take the tests was below 16. In that case no testing results are publicly reported for privacy reasons.)

Mancos didn’t request a waiver.

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.