Accountability clock chimes louder for 30 schools

Thirty Colorado schools are about to enter the fifth year of low performance that could trigger state intervention, including closure, conversion to charters or changes in who runs them.

The 2013-14 ratings for schools – formally know as school performance frameworks – were released by the Department of Education and presented to the State Board of Education. The board approved the ratings unanimously.

“Some some schools have made tremendous growth,” Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen told the board in his briefing. But, he said later, the lowest-performing schools are “a group of schools we have large concerns about.”

Schools that remain in the two lowest categories – priority improvement and turnaround – for five consecutive years are subject to possible state intervention under the terms of a 2009 law that revamped the state accountability system for rating districts and schools.

So the 2013-14 ratings are significant because they were fifth set issued since the law was passed, and the 30 schools are the first “class” to potentially be subject to significant restructuring because of consistent low performance. The new ratings go into effect July 1, 2015, for the 2015-16 school year. Technically, sanctions wouldn’t be applied to schools until July 1, 2016.

Find your school’s state rating in our searchable database. 

The 30 schools are scattered across the state and range from elementary to high schools and include traditional, magnet, innovation, charter and online schools. The schools are in 18 districts, with just more than a third located in two districts, Denver Public Schools (five) and the Pueblo 60 district (six).

Eight districts also are subject to losing their state accreditation because of low performance. They are Aguilar, Commerce City, Ignacio, Julesburg, Montezuma-Cortez, Pueblo 60, Sheridan and Westminster. (Aurora is the one large district entering year four.) District ratings were released last month; see this Chalkbeat Colorado story for details on those ratings and these CDE slides for more information.

Possible consequences for low-performing schools include changing to operation by a public or private entity other than the district, conversion to charter status, change to innovation status or closure.

Before what’s called the “accountability clock” finally runs out on June 30, 2016, CDE is working to help districts turn struggling school around and minimize drastic and disruptive changes for the 2016-17 school year.

The board is planning to meet with some district and school representatives next spring, and CDE has created a “turnaround network” to help struggling schools. (Learn more about the network here, and get more details in this Chalkbeat story.)

The department hopes that district and school changes can be agreed to by CDE and districts earlier and put in place to minimize the number of drastic changes after July 1, 2016.

The issue of helping struggling schools and districts is complicated by the fact that the ratings approved Wednesday apply to both the 2015-16 and the 2016-17 school years. That’s because the transition to new state language arts and math tests – which will be given next spring – will delay compilation of the test scores and student academic growth data that are used to calculate district and school ratings.

Districts will have the ability to try to change 2016-17 ratings next year through an appeal process called “request for consideration.” The department received 123 requests for reconsideration of the latest ratings, the majority of which were granted. “We’re expecting double or triple that next year,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis, told the board.

The accountability system is complicated, to say the least. Here’s an explanation of some of the key features of the system and of the latest ratings.

How schools are rated

Schools are rated at one of four levels – performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. Based on their ratings, all schools are required to prepare written plans for how they intend to maintain or improve their ratings.

Schools that are rated priority improvement or turnaround for five straight years are subject to intervention. (Districts are graded on a five-level system, with districts that remain in the two lowest levels subject to loss of accreditation.)

For elementary and middle schools, scores are based on student academic growth (50 percent), test scores (25 percent) and growth gaps between student demographic groups (25 percent).

The formula is slightly different for high schools. Graduation rates, dropout rates and ACT scores account for 35 percent of the numerical rating, student academic growth is weighted at 35 percent and test scores and growth gaps account for 15 percent each.

Highlights of the 2014 ratings

Here’s how the state’s 1,699 schools break out:

  • Performance – 1,198 schools, 70.5 percent. This category covers 600,901 students
  • Improvement – 332 schools, 19.5 percent, 153,271 students
  • Priority improvement – 114 schools, 6.7 percent (down five schools from 2013), 52,452 students
  • Turnaround – 55 schools, 3.2 percent (up six from 2013). 19,482 students

(Enrollment figures don’t include pre-K or alternative education center students.)

The number of districts in the two lowest categories have declined, but the number of schools in the lowest categories has remained about the same over the last four years.

About 70 percent of priority improvement and turnaround schools were in districts that are overall were not rated in the two lowest categories.

A higher percentage of charter schools were rated performance than were traditional schools, but a higher percentage of charters were in turnaround status. Innovation schools lagged traditional schools in their distribution among the four categories. Online schools performed worse than other schools.

Alternative education centers – primarily high schools that serve students whose academic performance is significantly lower than their ages – are rated according to a slightly different system. In 2014 the percentage of AECs with performance and improvement plans increased, while the number with turnaround plans went down. The state has 84 such schools.

The big picture

Here’s a look at changes in school ratings compared to 2013:

  • 78.9 percent stayed in the same category
  • 133 schools moved up one level; 170 moved down
  • 21 schools moved up two levels; 19 moved down
  • 2 schools moved up 3 levels; 8 dropped the same number

The percentage of schools rated improvement and turnaround increased slightly, while those with performance and priority improvement ratings dropped slightly.

Who’s on the clock

Here the number of schools at various stages of the accountability clock:

  • 83 schools are in year one
  • 42 schools are in year two
  • 18 schools have been rated priority improvement or turnaround for three years
  • 17 schools are in year four
  • 30 schools have reached the fifth consecutive year of low performance

What can happen to low-rated schools

An outside panel of experts known as the State Review Panel will review struggling schools and recommend to the State Board management by public or private entity other than the district, different entity in case of charters, conversion to charter, granted innovation status or closed or charter revoked.

The board can’t actually order an individual schools closed or otherwise changed. Instead, it will request a district to, for instance, close a school. If the district declines to do so, the board can in turn down knock the district’s accreditation down one level.

For districts, the review panel also will study districts and recommend
reorganization, take-over of district management or of one or more schools, conversion of one or more schools to charters, giving innovation status to one or more schools and closure of one or more schools.

See these CDE flow charts for more details on the process and get more details on the 2014 ratings in this CDE slide show.

Beyond what CDE and the State Board ultimately do about the lowest-performing schools, the courts also may get involved.

Owen cautioned the board that “Your first action potentially will be challenged by a lawsuit. … That’s been told to me by several different attorneys and several different districts.”

The 30 schools

  • Adams 12-Five Star Schools – Thornton Elementary
  • Adams County 14 (Commerce City) – Adams City High
  • Aguilar – Aguilar Junion-Senior High
  • Aurora – Aurora Central High
  • Colorado Springs 11 – Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy
  • DPS – Colorado High School Charter
  • DPS – Escuela Tlatelolco (the school has indicated it will convert to private)
  • DPS – P.R.E.P.
  • DPS – Trevista ECE-8 at Horace Mann
  • DPS – West High
  • Douglas – Colorado Cyber School
  • Douglas – HOPE Online elementary
  • Douglas – HOPE Online middle
  • Greeley – Franklin Middle
  • Greeley – John Evans Middle
  • Huerfano – Peakview School
  • Ignacio – Ignacio Elementary
  • Julesburg – Insight School of Colorado
  • Lake County – Lake County Intermediate
  • Mapleton – Welby Montessori
  • Montezuma-Cortez – Kemper Elementary
  • Pueblo 60 – Benjamin Franklin Elementary
  • Pueblo 60 – Bessemer Elementary
  • Pueblo 60 – Heros Middle
  • Pueblo 60 – Irving Elementary
  • Pueblo 60 – Risley International Academy of Innovation
  • Pueblo 60 – Roncalli STEM Academy
  • Rocky Ford – Jefferson Intermediate
  • South Conejos – Antonito Middle
  • Westminster – M. Scott Carpenter Middle