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

Here are the Colorado schools and districts most likely to face state intervention for poor performance

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

As many as five Colorado school districts and a dozen schools could face state intervention next year for persistent low performance on state tests.

That’s according to preliminary school quality ratings issued by the Colorado Department of Education this month and obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request.

Schools and districts can appeal the ratings, and some have already said they plan to do so.

When the ratings are finalized this winter, it will mark a significant milestone. For the first time since Colorado’s current school accountability system was created in 2009, the State Board of Education will force districts and schools that have failed to improve for five consecutive years to take action to boost student learning.

The state board has a list of directives it may issue to local school boards. Some are more drastic than others. Among the possibilities: close schools or turn them over to new management, apply for waivers from local and state policies, merge with a nearby high-performing school district, or turn over all or some operations to a third party.

The schools and districts facing sanctions are large and small, urban and rural, district-run and charters. The largest school is Aurora Central High with 2,172 students, most of whom are black or Latino. The smallest school district is Aguilar in southeastern Colorado with 124 students.

Still on the clock |
These districts and schools received a preliminary rating that if unchanged would mean the State Board of Education must take action:
• Westminster Public Schools
• Adams 14 School District
• Aguilar Reorganized
• Montezuma-Cortez
• Julesburg RE-1
• Adams City High
• Aurora Central High
• HOPE Online Learning Academy, elementary and middle schools
• Peakview School
• Aguilar Junior-Senior High
• Bessemer Elementary
• Heroes Middle School
• Risley International Academy of Innovation
• Destinations Career Academy of Innovation
• Franklin Middle School
• Prairie Heights Middle School

The largest school district to face intervention next year will likely be Westminster Public Schools, which serves about 10,000 students northwest of Denver in Adams County. The district has pledged to appeal its preliminary rating. Leaders there plan to point to multiple years of sustained academic growth, especially at schools that were among the first to be flagged by the state for poor test scores.

“This is not a district that has been sitting still for five years,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “If we get pushed back down the hill, we’ll just have to start climbing up again.”

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from English and math tests, and other factors such as graduation rates.

Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face interventions.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in standardized tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

Another school district that plans to press the state for a higher rating is Adams 14 in Commerce City.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

The district believes results from its own standardized tests will demonstrate enough progress to bump Adams City High, one of the schools that could face sanctions next year, off the academic watch list.

“We own our performance and are accountable for our data,” new Superintendent Javier Abrego said in a statement. “That’s why it’s important to consider the preliminary nature of these data. This is a prime example of why the state has built into its process, the opportunity for local schools to illustrate student performance using local viable and credible test measures.”

Not every school is sure it will ask the state for a higher rating.

“We just received the results late last week and are in the process of evaluating them,” Heather O’Mara, CEO of the HOPE Online Learning Academy charter school, said in a statement. “At this time we have not decided if we will make a request to reconsider.”

Leaders of the charter school will meet with officials from its authorizer, the Douglas County School District, next week to discuss the school’s results.

Schools and districts have until Nov. 7 to ask the state for a higher rating.

Prior to the one-year timeout caused by the change in state tests, eight districts and 30 schools had been on the state’s watch list for five consecutive years.

School districts that jumped off the list in time to avoid meeting with the state board next year include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and the Ignacio School District. Schools that jumped off the list include four in Denver Public Schools and five rural schools.

One of those rural schools was Kemper Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez RE 1 school district in southwestern Colorado. While the school showed enough progress to exit the watch list, the district’s preliminary rating indicates the district as a whole might face sanctions.

The 2,782-student rural district also believes that local data will show greater improvement than results from the PARCC exams, especially given the large number of students who skipped the tests in 2016.

“We believe results from the PARCC test are not a fair representation of our student population,” said Superintendent Lori Haukeness, adding that 75 percent of ninth grade students and more than 35 percent of middle school students opted out.

In case the state rejects the district’s request for a higher rating, the district is beginning work on a plan to present to the state board next year.

“Hopefully we’re successful with our appeal,” Haukeness said, “and won’t need to identify a pathway.”

Steel City Turnaround

Pueblo City Schools, with moments to spare, improves enough to avoid state intervention

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in 2014.

At an emergency staff meeting Wednesday, teachers at Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo were surprised with cake, sparkling cider and a toast to their hard work.

They had done it, Principal Marci Imes told them. Once the state’s lowest performing middle school, students at Roncalli had shown enough improvement on math and English tests to jump off the state’s academic watch list and escape state sanctions.

“It’s validating to know that the work we’re doing is the right work,” Imes said in an interview. “We’ve been working so hard for years.”

Similar celebrations are likely to take place at schools throughout the southern Colorado town.

Pueblo City Schools officials announced this week that the 18,000-student district and nine of its schools had improved enough on state tests to drop off the watch list and avoid state intervention. The district was the largest of any facing that likelihood this year under Colorado’s accountability law.

Still, three Pueblo schools — Bessemer Elementary, Risley International Academy and Heroes middle schools — did not make enough progress in time and are likely to face repercussions from the State Board of Education next year.

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from standardized tests and other factors such as graduation rates. Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face state sanctions that may include school closures, charter school takeovers or other steps.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in math and English tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

As an initial step, state officials released preliminary quality ratings to schools and districts earlier this week. Schools and districts that received disappointing news may appeal their ratings before they are finalized later this winter.

“We are encouraged to see that all the hard work from Pueblo educators and students is beginning to pay off with an improved rating this year,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s interim education commissioner, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to partner with the district and community to build on this momentum and ensure that all students have access to a high quality education.”

Pueblo school officials announced their ratings in a statement to the Pueblo Chieftain.

“Clearly, this is an accomplishment that did not happen overnight,” interim Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a statement. “Our teachers and school leaders are to be commended for their diligence and the very hard work they have been engaged in over the course of the past six years.”

Macaluso was named the district’s interim leader this summer after the school board parted ways with Superintendent Constance Jones. Much of the district’s momentum that led to the increased ratings happened under Jones’s two-year tenure.

“We had worked so hard and spent so many long hours,” Jones said in an interview. “It felt all the time spent was worthwhile. I could not be more proud of the students, teachers and administrators.”

During that time, the district updated its math and reading curriculum, provided new teacher and principal training and used new local tests to track student learning.

“There’s a lot to be said for putting the focus on strong teaching of reading and math,” Jones said.

Back at Roncalli, the challenge now is to not backslide like so many schools have, said Imes, the principal.

“It’s even more crucial that we continue to push harder,” she said.“I’ll take a deep breath after a few more good years.”