Colorado

‘No justifiable basis’ for Chavez test accommodations

EdCChavezSign92309An audit of testing practices at Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo finds three successive years of “extremely high” rates of special accommodations for test-takers – but no evidence of answer tampering or test coaching.

Auditors also said there was no evidence that the extra time, typically another 30 minutes per test-taker, resulted in improved scores for CCA students on the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

Lawrence Hernandez, CCA’s controversial founder, said he feels “vindication.”

“What the audit shows is that the kids earned the results they received,” said Hernandez, who was ousted from the school in October and is now suing the school’s governing board.

Still, “There is no justifiable basis for these high rates of accommodation levels,” state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones said in a news release Monday. “The state is compelled to require Cesar Chavez Academy to establish new policies and implement new procedures to ensure these high rates of accommodations are not repeated.”

As Education News Colorado first reported in July, 56 percent of Cesar Chavez Academy students in grades 3 through 8 received extra time on their 2008 reading exams. In comparison, 6.9 percent of all Colorado students in grades 3 through 8 received extra time on their 2008 reading tests.

The Caveon Test Security audit points to  similar discrepancies between the school and state practices, noting that 77.5 percent of Cesar Chavez third-graders were provided extra time on state writing tests in 2007 compared to just 6.5 percent of students statewide.

Colorado Department of Education officials commissioned the audit at the request in June of former Pueblo City Schools Superintendent John Covington. The state paid Utah-based Caveon $25,000 and released the firm’s findings on Monday.

Among the highlights:

  • No evidence of answer sheet tampering through erasures, test coaching through similar test analysis or unusual gains from prior years.
  • Normal rates of extra-time accommodations in 2006 at CCA but “extreme rates of extra-time accommodations” in 2007 and 2008 in all grades and in grades 3 and 7  in 2009.
  • Inconsistent use of extra-time accommodations for the same students from 2008 to 2009; for example, “an unexpectedly large number of students” who received extra time in 2008 did not receive the same accommodation in 2009 – whether the students stayed at CCA or moved to another school.
  • No evidence of testing irregularities at CCA’s sister school in Pueblo, Dolores Huerta Preparatory High; Denver’s Cesar Chavez Academy, which has its own governing board, was not part of the audit.

Pueblo City Schools officials released a statement saying the Caveon audit “confirms allegations that inappropriate CSAP test administration has taken place at Cesar Chavez Academy for the past three years.”

“This is unfortunate for so many families who had such high aspirations for the school as it was originally envisioned,” Pueblo City’s school board president, Stephanie Garcia, said in the release.

“It certainly is sad that those in authority at CCA lost sight of the vision by compromising the school’s credibility and misleading children and their families into a false assessment of a student’s academic performance.”

CDE’s Jones has requested the CCA develop and submit to Pueblo City Schools a written plan to remedy training and implementation of testing procedures by Feb. 1. He said the plan must include new CCA policies and assurances that school test procedures are transparent to the school district and the state.

Pueblo district officials say they’re considering “a range of actions that could include, but not limited to, proctoring of future CSAP tests at CCA, sanctions against CCA administration and working with the CDE to invalidate certain CCA test results as a result of misadministration.

“We do not refute the audit findings but in fact embrace them as an opportunity to move forward with our educational programs,” Dennis Feuerstein, governing board president of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network, which includes CCA, said in a statement.

“Faculty, staff, and students are not surprised that there is no evidence of tampering, teaching to, copying of, or ‘cheating’ during the CSAP,” he said. “Our students and teachers have worked extremely hard and their high achievement has been confirmed.”

Feuerstein said the schools’ network acknowledges “that a significant number of students” received extra time but said, “The internal policies and procedures regarding these extra time accommodations were practices mandated by prior administration that are no longer associated with our schools.”

It was unclear if Feuerstein was referring to Hernandez, the CEO of the Cesar Chavez Schools’ Network through October. Feuerstein, among those being sued by Hernandez over his ouster, did not return a call requesting clarification.

CCA, a K-8 charter school, has won national attention for achieving high test scores with a high-minority, high-poverty student enrollment. But the school’s accomplishments have long been questioned by some in the Pueblo school district and in the Pueblo community.

The CDE also is planning a financial audit of Cesar Chavez Academy and expects “soon” to announce the firm selected for that audit, according to its release.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.