From the Statehouse

Board pushes ahead on grad guidelines

The State Board of Education Wednesday unanimously adopted guidelines for high school graduation requirements, but that doesn’t mean current high school students will have to change their class schedules in order to get their diplomas.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

The guidelines have a long implementation timeline, and the document is expected to be changed more than once over the next two years. That makes its impact on future students hard to predict.

The overall goal of the guidelines is to make high school diplomas represent what students actually know and can do – “competency” in education jargon. Most district graduation requirements now are based on completion of a certain number of classes over a certain number of years. (Education jargon for that is “seat time.”)

The document is “an intentional statement that we are moving from seat time … to proof of competency,” said Scott Stump, a community college system administrator who was a member of the 19-person committee that developed the guidelines for SBE.

The report from the Graduation Guidelines Council sets out another key goal: “A high school diploma should guarantee that students are: 1) prepared to enter credit-bearing courses in postsecondary education institutions; 2) prepared academically to enter military officer training; and 3) prepared to be productive entry-level employees in the
workforce.”

But the details of the document have drawn a lot of questions and some opposition from a variety of education interest groups. Even Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues, told the board he was “neutral” on the guidelines.

Graduation guidelines are a complicated issue for a lot of reasons.

First, the state constitution’s local control provision gives school boards substantial autonomy in curriculum and instruction. So, neither the legislature nor the Department of Education can impose uniform graduation requirements for all students, as is the case in some other states. Rather, the guidelines would set a basic standards that districts would have to “meet or exceed” in setting their own graduation requirements.

Second, the guidelines would have a long rollout period, and the first group of students directly affected by new district requirements will those who graduate from high school in 2021.

Third, and perhaps most important, minimum scores and standards for several of the tests and other measurements suggested in the guidelines haven’t been set. So, students, parents and districts don’t yet know the full menu of choices that can be used to set district requirements. (See below for the full list of suggested measures and cut scores.)

The guidelines also would require districts to include successful student completion of individual career and academic plans (ICAPs) in their graduation requirements and to advise students and families about graduation requirements starting in the 6th grade.

Nearly a dozen witnesses testified during the board’s two-hour hearing on the guidelines.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, was critical, saying, “The council’s proposal leaves little room for local discretion … the guidelines are more like rules.”

Because of that, she suggested to board go through the formal rule-making process, which has specific requirements for public comment. (The board didn’t take up that suggestion – it had a deadline to adopt the guidelines this month.)

Bret Miles, superintendent of the eastern plains district of Holyoke and also representing the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, sounded a similar note. “We feel like this … oversteps the local boards of education.”

Randy DeHoff, a former SBE member who was representing the Colorado Cyberschool Association, seconded the concerns of the rural caucus.

On the other side, representatives of Stand for Children, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, A+ Denver and Democrats for Education Reform supported the guidelines. “They’re a huge step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, speaking for A+ Denver and DFER.

Garcia, who spoke to the board earlier in the day before the hearing, said of the rules, “We’re not just quite there yet” adding it “would be best” if the board waiting to act until after his Department of Higher Education completes work on new admissions and remediation policies later this year.

Some board members were sympathetic to the critics. Deb Scheffel, a Republican who represents the 6th District, wondered, “Why wouldn’t the state board engage in rule making if it’s going to be this detailed?”

Chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from the 5th District, suggested that the grid of tests and cut scores be relegated to an appendix of the guidelines.

But both voted for the guidelines in the end, partly because of the fact that the document will be tweaked in the future.

“This is the beginning of a process,” noted education Commissioner Robert Hammond.

“These guidelines are not static,” said Stump. “At each step of the process there are going to be new tools for measuring student performance.”

It’s a moving target – new science and social studies coming spring of 2014, PARCC tests spring of 2015 and updated higher ed “no remediation” standards fall of 2013.

Creation of the guidelines was required by a 2007. The guidelines council issued an initial report in 2008 but then was dormant until it was revived last year. The guidelines law was overshadowed by a far more comprehensive 2008 education reform law, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That set requirements for new state content standards, tests and alignment of K-12 outcome with college admissions standards.

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rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”