How many is too many?

Not all schools want the state telling them how to assess whether kids are ready for kindergarten. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Next week, Principal Lori Heller will drive to Denver from her tiny elementary school on the Eastern Plains for a hearing before the state Board of Education. She’ll bring along her kindergarten teacher, who this year has 10 students in her class.

They’ll be asking the board to grant their district, Peetz Plateau, an exception to a state rule that requires Colorado schools to assess kindergarteners using certain approved tools. If the vote goes in their favor — it didn’t on their first try in August — Peetz Plateau will be among eight school districts and 80 charter schools that have received such waivers over the last two years.

School and district leaders who’ve gotten the waivers see them as common-sense measures that give them more control over assessment decisions. But for some early childhood advocates the growing numbers of waivers are troubling — a sign that the lofty ambitions of a major 2008 school reform law are being watered down.

That law, called CAP4K, mandated that kindergarteners be assessed to see how well they were doing on a range of academic, developmental and behavioral skills as they entered school. And the results weren’t just for parents and teachers. They would be reported in aggregate to state lawmakers.

That is still set to happen, probably in about 18 months. Even so, there’s been a growing chorus of worry that those aggregate results won’t provide much clarity if they’ve been gleaned from many different types of assessments, some of which have been nationally vetted for validity and reliability, and many others that have been developed locally without rigorous scientific evaluation.

“At some point the state needs to step back and say, ‘Do we believe in the aggregate assessment of how our kids are doing at kindergarten entry or are we OK with not really knowing,’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Given the growing variability in assessment tools, he said, “It’s going to be very hard to know the value of investments we’re making in early childhood.”

State board members — both Democrats and Republicans — have also worried that the growing number of kindergarten assessment systems will make it impossible to meet their obligation to the legislature.

School districts with kindergarten readiness waivers

  • Academy 20
  • Cheyenne Mountain
  • Holyoke
  • Elbert County
  • Lewis-Palmer
  • Woodlin
  • Wray

During a hearing on a waiver request by the 6,300-student Lewis-Palmer district last April, board vice chair Angelika Schroeder said, “I just don’t believe that the legislature asked us to check on kindergarten readiness and then have it nicked away and nicked away until there isn’t anything were actually providing to them.”

At the same time, officials from districts and schools that have sought waivers say they are committed to kindergarten readiness assessments but prefer to use locally-grown systems developed with staff input over several years.

“Long before CAP4K…we had a pretty robust screening and diagnostic process in place that we used with all our kindergarteners,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, which won its waiver in March.

The process was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school nurses.

“We did not want to abandon what we had been doing that had been so successful for us,” Cooper said.

In small rural districts, which represent five of the eight districts that have sought waivers, administrators say small class sizes and the close-knit nature of their communities ensure that teachers are intimately familiar with students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“They’re not going to get lost,” Heller said.

Rocky roll-out

One reason for the rocky transition to the kindergarten assessment system mandated under CAP4K and the growing stream of waiver requests has been frustration with the first assessment approved by the state.

Called Teaching Strategies GOLD, it’s now one of three approved assessments, but remains the most widely used one. (Unlike assessments for older kids, which might be paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests, kindergarten readiness assessments rely on teachers to observe students and document their skills.)

Over the past few years, many teachers and administrators have complained that GOLD is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes hobbled by technological snafus. In some districts, there were also concerns about privacy since the online tool allows teachers to document student progress using photos and videos of kids.

Since then, several changes have been made, including cutting the number of items on GOLD nearly in half and and requiring parental permission for student photos and videos. The streamlined version of GOLD was unveiled this fall.

But even with the improvements, administrators like Lori Heller say the tool duplicates what her school is already doing. Since Peetz Plateau hasn’t yet received a waiver, the kindergarten teacher used both the usual district assessments as well as GOLD this fall.

“At this point, we’re not getting any additional information from TS GOLD about students that we don’t already have,” Heller said. “It’s not really helping to drive our instruction.”

The situation was similar last year at Roots Elementary, a Denver charter school that opened in the fall of 2015 but didn’t have a waiver until this year.

Principal Jon Hanover said while he usually lands on the side of more assessment and accountability, he doesn’t feel that way about GOLD. The school used it along with a raft of other carefully chosen assessments last year.

It’s well-intentioned, he said, but puts an unnecessary burden on kids and teachers and didn’t add anything to the data they already collected.

Numbers stable for now

Despite worries about a mishmash of kindergarten assessment systems now in use across Colorado, it’s unclear whether the number will grow further.

Currently, Peetz Plateau is the only district scheduled for a waiver hearing at an upcoming state board meeting. Officials at the education department said they weren’t aware of any other pending requests.

With the requirement for statewide kindergarten readiness assessment now in its second year, it’s possible educators are getting used to the new system. Even before the tool was scaled down this year, it garnered praise from some teachers who said it provides a comprehensive picture of how children are doing and is easy for parents to understand.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she’s heard positive feedback from districts since the simplified version of GOLD was released.

“They like it better,” she said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”

Even with the changes, some rural district leaders believe GOLD is more than they need in their small communities, Murphy said.

Low bar for some applicants?

Some district officials have been surprised by what they see as inconsistencies in how the state decides who gets kindergarten readiness assessment waivers and who doesn’t.

Some waivers, especially those from charter schools, seem to sail through the approval process. Others have faltered even when modeled on successful waiver applications submitted by other charter schools or districts. In addition, some district waivers expire after three years while others continue into perpetuity.

These disparities are partly due to the three different waiver pathways that exist in state law — one for charter schools, one for school districts and one for schools or districts seeking innovation status.

But timing also seems to be a factor, with more scrutiny for some districts that have sought waivers later in the process when the number of waivers was beginning to alarm the state board.

Cooper said his staff developed their waiver application in close collaboration with a local charter school that had easily obtained a waiver the year before. He said he was surprised at the “double standard of scrutiny” applied to Cheyenne Mountain’s proposal — hours of conference calls with state education department officials and multiple revisions to parts of the plan.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning at the education department, said, “We recognize that a charter that comes forward with a waiver request has already had a level of oversight and scrutiny by their district or local authorizer.”

The education department plays that vetting role for school districts requesting waivers, she said.

But Cooper argued that local school boards vet waivers from both charters and their own school districts, so the different standard by the state doesn’t make sense.

Murphy also lamented the high bar that districts such as Peetz Plateau must hurdle to get waivers.

“I’d just like to see small rural (districts) have an easier time in the review process,” she said.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Legislating discipline

Not just a Front Range problem: Young boys of color are more likely to be suspended in rural Colorado, too

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

When a Colorado bill that would limit suspensions and expulsions among young students met vocal opposition from rural school district leaders in March, a common refrain was that harsh discipline tactics were a Front Range problem, not a rural one.

But a Chalkbeat examination of state data on out-of-school suspensions of students in kindergarten to second grade shows that a key concern of bill advocates — that such methods disproportionately impact boys, especially boys of color — bears out in the state’s rural districts, too.

Last year, the state’s 148 rural districts handed out nearly 500 out-of-school suspensions to early elementary kids, 84 percent of them to boys. Boys in almost every racial and ethnic category were overrepresented in the suspension pool when compared to their overall populations in rural districts.

The disparities were particularly pronounced for black and multiracial boys, who make up just under 2 percent of rural students, followed by white boys, who comprise one-third of rural students.

Supporters of efforts to curb early childhood suspension and expulsion say removing kids from school at a young age can have devastating lifelong consequences — increasing the likelihood of future suspensions and the risk that kids will eventually drop out and end up incarcerated.

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

The legislation was crafted after months of work by advocates who sought input from an array of sources, including the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

At first, the alliance didn’t take an official stand on the bill, but in late March — the same day the House approved the bill — its board voted unanimously to oppose the bill. After that, Republicans in the Senate assigned the bill to a committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. It’s scheduled for a hearing in that committee on Monday.

While not all rural school district leaders oppose the bill, some say the problem the proposed legislation is trying to solve doesn’t apply to them.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance said, “It’s not a rural issue … We are not over-expelling or over-suspending our kids.”

National experts, however, say the problem touches districts of all sizes and types.

“Usually whether it’s rural, suburban or urban, we see a wide range of suspension rates, evidence of excess and unjustified disparities,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We see it everywhere.”


Murphy said there’s been no outcry in Colorado’s rural districts from parents or community groups about discipline in the early grades.

Losen said there can be a variety of reasons for that. Parents may not be aware of data that illuminates discipline disparities. They may also be ashamed that their children behaved poorly at school or feel intimidated by school officials.

If parents are undocumented immigrants, Losen said, “the last thing they’re going to do is challenge school officials about anything.”

Taken together, Colorado’s rural districts do have lower suspension rates in the early childhood years than non-rural districts. Colorado’s rural districts educate about 16 percent of the state’s students and hand out 9 percent of the early elementary suspensions, according to 2015-16 data from the Colorado Department of Education.

The numbers, however, vary widely by district.

Dozens of rural districts suspended no kindergarten through second-grade children last year. Dozens of others suspended at least a few, with several handing out more than 20 suspensions. (Expulsions of young children are rare in all types of school districts, with only six statewide last year.)

There are dramatic differences in out-of-school suspension rates even in similarly sized rural districts. For example, the 1,360-student East Otero district in southeastern Colorado handed out 32 suspensions to children in kindergarten through second grade last year, while the 1,320-student Fremont RE-2 district suspended one.

East Otero Superintendent Rick Lovato said part of the reason for the high number of suspensions last year at La Junta Primary School was a new principal and assistant principal who put in place stricter behavior guidelines after a year in which students were being sent to the office constantly for bad behavior.

The vast majority of suspensions — some children received two or three that year — were for violent behavior such as punching, fighting, kicking and biting, Lovato said. This year, so far, kindergarten to second grade suspensions are down to 12.

“Kids and parents have adjusted to the culture and understand what those boundaries are,” said Lovato.

He said the district is working to reduce out-of-school suspensions in all grade levels at all three of its schools.

Lovato said he’s on the fence about House Bill 1210. While he’s adamantly against early elementary expulsions and believes nearly all early childhood suspensions given in East Otero would be allowed under the legislation, he feels districts should get to have the final say in such decisions.

High poverty rates can sometimes drive high suspension rates, but it’s far from universal in Colorado’s rural districts. For example, the 3,600-student Canon City district, where about half of students come from low-income families, gave out 43 early elementary suspensions last year while the nearly 5,000-student Garfield RE-2 district, where the same proportion of students come from low-income families, gave out nine.

Losen said how heavily a building relies on suspension has a lot “to do with the school principal and the culture and history of a school.”

“You tend to see it where resources are really scarce and folks don’t feel they can teach all kids,” he said.

Given the state’s perennial school funding crunch, many rural superintendents argue that limited resources play a part. They say shoestring budgets make it hard to afford counselors, social workers or other staff who could help children with challenging behavior.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that East Otero had suspended 32 children last year. In fact, the district gave out 32 suspensions last year, with some children receiving multiple suspensions. Also, a previous version of the story quoted the Fremont Unified School District director of student support services. That school district is in California. The administrator gamely answered our questions about Colorado legislation, and we quoted him. We meant to contact the Fremont R-2 school district in Florence, in southern Colorado, to ask about the district’s low suspension rates. We regret getting our Fremonts mixed up.