State accountability

Adams 14 will retain low rating, setting district up for state sanctions

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

State education department officials have rejected Adams County School District 14’s attempt to avoid state sanctions for continued poor academic performance, citing a lack of evidence showing improvement.

Colorado Department of Education officials will present final district performance ratings to the State Board of Education on Thursday. Districts received preliminary ratings in October and were given a chance to ask the state to reconsider the rating by presenting different evidence.

But according to a letter sent to Adams 14 that the district provided to Chalkbeat, state officials found the request was not strong enough to earn a higher rating, as the district requested.

“The data across grade levels and content areas did not present a compelling case of performance that warrants a higher accreditation rating,” department officials wrote this week.

The district’s rating will remain accredited with turnaround plan — the lowest of the five possible ratings.

The decision is a significant blow for Adams 14 because the district is one of five in the state that are facing state sanctions for earning low ratings on the state’s evaluations for five years. The state has a small number of options to deal with the low-performing districts, including closing schools, merging districts or turning over management to a third party.

Adams 14 officials have said they are working on drafting an innovation plan requesting waivers and flexibilities from the state to try new approaches to improving student achievement. If the state approves an innovation plan, that could serve as it sanction — giving Adams 14 more time to show signs of improvement before more drastic steps.

Superintendent Javier Abrego, who took the top job in the 7,500-student district this summer, said the district is disappointed but respects the decision. The district will not pursue an appeal, a district spokeswoman said.

“We’ve seen pockets of improvement around the district, but it’s simply not enough,” Abrego said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “That’s why my instructional team has taken a deeper dive into the state test data as well as other instructional data and we’re working with principals and teachers to strengthen the alignment of instruction to the Colorado Academic Standards. We’re also re-evaluating the support and training provided to educators to make sure it’s targeted to improve instruction.”

The Adams 14 request asking for a higher performance rating asked state officials to remove a set of 2015 test data for students who are learning English as a second language, saying it did not reflect recent changes to instruction for those students.

State officials responded that they did remove that set of data, but it didn’t change the overall assessment of the district.

The district also presented data from district tests, but didn’t provide what was required.

“As stated in the request to reconsider guidance, a successful case for a request based on a body of evidence will include three years of data. Only one year of data (2015-16) was provided in the request,” the letter stated. “Without a sense of whether the district is on an upward or downward trajectory, and relying solely on one year of supplemental data—which depicts many of the district’s students failing to meet the 50th percentile in growth—the department cannot accept the district’s request for a higher rating.”

State officials also give performance ratings to individual schools, but those won’t be finalized until January. Adams 14 had asked the state to reconsider several of their district’s school ratings as well, and in the same letter from the state, they learned the state will reconsider one elementary school’s rating.

tick tock

How Colorado education officials have quietly helped struggling schools improve

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

Wary of repeating past mistakes, Colorado education department officials have spent the last year and $650,000 in federal tax money helping a group of struggling schools that face state-ordered changes turn things around.

The State Board of Education on Thursday will begin a months-long process of determining what changes a dozen schools and five school districts should make to boost student learning.

The department, wanting to avoid a breakdown between schools and the state board, created a grant program that provided money and training to schools to create their own improvement plans. Department officials hope the schools will create high-quality plans and that the board will approve them instead of imposing changes on districts.

“The philosophy we’ve had as a department is that districts that help choose their own path will have the highest chance of success,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, an accountability coordinator for the education department.

Under state law, the state board can direct school districts to close schools or turn them over to charter operators, among other options. The board must consult with the department and a third-party review committee that visited each school on the accountability watch list.

But the final decision rests with the seven-member State Board of Education.

Eleven schools districts — including Montezuma-Cortez, the first school district the state board will meet with Thursday — participated in the grant program.

The 2,800-student district in southwest Colorado used some of the $101,628 it received to travel to Denver to meet with department officials to chart a course for the district. The money also paid for travel to tour high-performing schools.

But the majority of money is going to hiring a third party to help improve the school district — one of options under the state’s accountability law.

The plan, which the district will present to the board on Thursday, calls for the district to enroll in a three-year school improvement program offered by the University of Virginia.

The Cortez district — as well as several others in the state — have worked with the university before. Part of the university’s training teaches schools how to focus on smaller, targeted 90-day goals to increase student learning.

District officials say the training has shown positive results in two of the district’s elementary schools, and the hope is to expand the training to the middle and high school.

Part of the program includes routine visits from university staff and regular updates on progress that will be submitted to the Cortez school board and state board, said Lori Haukeness, Montezuma-Cortez’s superintendent.

“We’re continuing work that we know is proven nationally and is already seeing results in our districts,” she said.

The grant program helped another school district choose a similar pathway — even as it had spent a year working toward another.

Officials at the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City were strongly considering asking the state for innovation status, which would give their schools waivers from some district policy and state law.

But after using the $97,000 to hire a consultant to help them write their plan, the district officials decided to change course.

“When we started working with CDE, we tried to focus on what we really need,” said the district’s new superintendent, Javier Abrego. “Our need was a rigorous curriculum, we needed assessments, and we needed consistency throughout our schools.”

That led school districts students officials to change course and seek additional outside help with curriculum development and new tests to monitor student learning.

They’ll be working with the Arizona-based firm Beyond Textbooks to develop curriculum guides for teachers that are aligned to the state’s academic standards and tests to ensure students are meeting them.

State board members have expressed a desire to work with school districts, not against them. But they’ve also pledged to not allow any school to skate by — and they’ve been especially critical of schools seeking innovation status.

“It’s very risky for the board to recommend a dramatic differently pathway than what’s presented to us — unless it’s just garbage,” said board chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat. “We want success for kids. If we deeply believe what’s being proposed won’t be helpful, then we have to have a conversation.”

Haukeness, the Cortez school chief, said she sees Thursday’s meeting as a continuation of work her district has been doing for several years with the help of education department. Her district has participated in other education department-provided training.

“I can’t say CDE all of the sudden was there to support us during this pathway work, because CDE has worked closely with us during the last three years,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to presenting on Thursday and moving forward.”

tick tock

What the heck is the Colorado school accountability clock? (And 14 other questions you might ask.)

On Thursday, Colorado’s accountability clock chimes for a dozen schools and five school districts that have failed to show enough academic improvement on state tests during the last seven years.

That means time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.

Before the State Board of Education begins this work at its Thursday meeting, we’ve rounded up some questions — and answers — about how we got here and how this all works:

What is the state’s accountability clock?

“The clock” is the colloquial term lawmakers, state education department officials and some school leaders use to describe the state’s school accountability law. In 2009, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 163, an update to Colorado’s original accountability law. The law defines how the state measures the quality of schools and school districts, reports it to the public and intervenes if they don’t improve fast enough.

How is school quality measured?

Student performance on state standardized tests in math and English is by far the biggest factor in the ratings.

The state calculates how much students learn year-over-year compared to students at the same starting point. This “growth data” makes up the lion’s share of the report. How many students are meeting the state’s expectations on subject matter — in other words, whether students are at grade level — is a lesser factor.

High schools and school districts also are evaluated on a school’s composite score on college entrance exams juniors take, and how many students graduate or drop out.

Schools can earn one of four ratings. Going from the highest to lowest, they are: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. School districts can earn one of five ratings: distinction, performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

What happens if my school or school district earns one of the two lowest ratings?

Nothing off the bat. But if a school or school district consistently earns one of the two lowest ratings for five years, the state is required to step in.

If schools and districts only have five years to improve, why has the state waited seven years to take action on these first schools?

The timeline is muddled for two reasons.

First, the law built in a sort of buffer year after the fifth strike that allows schools and the state time to plan corrective actions. Second, because the state changed the tests measuring student achievement, lawmakers in 2015 called a one-year time-out.

So how is the state going to step in?

The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.

For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:

  • Close it.
  • Hand it over to a charter management organization.
  • Contract with a third party to help run the school.
  • Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.

For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:

  • Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).
  • Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
  • Apply for innovation status district-wide.

There’s also an “other” option for school districts?

That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.

What is innovation status, and an innovation plan?

Innovation schools were created by lawmakers in 2008. When schools or districts apply for innovation status, they’re required to create a plan that does two things. First, they must request a series of waivers from local policy or state law they believe are blocking them from boosting student achievement. Second, they must detail the policies they want to put in place.

Schools often seek flexibility over hiring and firing practices, curriculum and the school district calendar (usually, longer school years or longer days).

Some members of the state board have raised numerous concerns about struggling schools seeking more autonomy through innovation. This is something worth watching as the board considers its options.

Can the state just take over schools like they do in Tennessee or New Jersey?

No. Colorado’s constitutional local control provisions prohibit the state from taking direct control of a school. The local school board still has the ultimate control over schools, even if they haven’t improved in five years.

The state does, however, have some leverage on school districts: accreditation.

What’s accreditation?

Accreditation is basically a seal of approval that signals to the community the school district is meeting all of the state’s expectations and is paying its bills on time. (Seriously, if a school district isn’t fiscally sound, the state can yank its accreditation. But that’s a different story.)

What if the local school board doesn’t agree with the state board’s direction?

This is where the law starts to get really murky.

If a school district with one of the three highest ratings has a school on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can lower the district’s rating to one of the lowest.

If a school district is on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can revoke its accreditation.

What happens if a district loses accreditation?

No one really knows. It’s never happened in Colorado before.

Several years ago, the department suggested that losing accreditation would put students’ high school diplomas in jeopardy. It also suggested the state could withhold federal funding. (It can’t withhold state funding.)

But the department has backed off that stance. Now, the department considers the stigma of accreditation loss as enough of a punishment.

What’s going to happen during the next couple of months?

Between now and June, the state board will meet with each school and district twice.

The first meeting will be a quasi-judicial hearing. The department will present their suggestions on what the schools should do, and the schools will have a chance to define their own destiny.

Then a month later, the board will make its ruling on changes the districts and schools should make.

Under state law, this all has to be done by June 30.

What happens after June 30?

The law is silent on how the department is supposed to monitor the schools’ and districts’ progress.

However, department officials and the state board are working under the interpretation that schools and districts are to continue receiving annual quality reviews. If a district or school makes enough progress to earn a higher rating, the clock is reset for them. If the district or school continues to struggle, the state could require additional changes.

Are school districts really going to go along with this?

Early evidence suggests yes. However, the state education department has requested extra money from the state legislature to pay for increased legal services if rumored threats of lawsuits from some school districts become reality.

Is there any evidence this will work?

State intervention is a hotly debated topic across the country. And like many things in education, the results are mixed.

One study in Tennessee found that the struggling Shelby County School District was doing a better job of improving schools under their control compared to those in the district managed by the state.

However, Massachusetts has had some success.

Both of these states had more authority than Colorado, so it’s not a direct comparison.