How are Colorado schools doing? Advocates say the state still holds back too much data

The premise behind Colorado’s open enrollment system is that parents and students can choose the schools that best meet their needs.

But Latino parents looking for a school for their daughter would not be able to see what percentage of Latino students are meeting state standards at 31 schools in Jeffco or at 26 schools in Denver. African-American parents cannot see similar data for nine schools in Aurora and for 11 schools in District 11 in Colorado Springs.

These information gaps are why a broad coalition of civil rights groups and education advocates are pressing the Colorado Department of Education to make more information about student performance available to the public.

In a new Right to Know Report Card released Tuesday, they argue that while Colorado does an excellent job protecting individual student data, it could do a lot more to help the public understand how well schools are working for groups of students that traditionally have not been well served.

Among the areas in which Colorado is falling short, according to the coalition:

  • Some school- and district-level demographic data is missing.
  • The public cannot see how well the majority of students of color in the state are doing.
  • Even educators, who have broader access to data, cannot compare their own school with similar schools.
  • Available information is difficult for the general public to understand.
  • Materials are not translated into the other major languages spoken in the state.

“The more information that can be put out about any government entity, perhaps especially for our schools, the better it is for the public’s understanding of how those entities function,” said Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, one of 21 groups that together issued the report card and called for more transparency.

In addition to A Plus Colorado, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and Democrats for Education Reform, the coalition includes the Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators; Advocacy Denver, which supports students with disabilities; Together Colorado, a faith-based civil rights group; Colorado Youth Congress; and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. (As a media organization, Chalkbeat is a member of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, but was not involved in the development of the report card.)

This is not a new debate. Colorado was previously one of the most open states in providing detailed information about student performance. But starting in 2015, the Colorado Department of Education withheld a lot more information, particularly when results were separated out by categories of students. Instead of hiding results just for groups of 16 students or fewer, the state hides results from additional categories of students to prevent a careful analyst from working backward to determine what was in the redacted field.

Since the change, advocates have been pressing for more information, and the department has made some changes. For example, the state released subgroup data at the school level by combining different grades to create larger sets that were less likely to be redacted. Chalkbeat used information about growth rates — a reflection of how much progress students make in a year, but not how proficient they are in a given subject — to build databases that lets parents compare how well schools are serving students with disabilities, students of different races and ethnicities, and students living in poverty.

The department also recently rolled out online tools to make data more accessible to the general public.

State education officials stand behind their efforts to balance student privacy with information about school- and district-level performance.

Colorado Department of Education spokesperson Dana Smith said in an email that parents, teachers, and advocates have access to a lot of information about school performance, including information about subgroup performance

“If anything, our data is so voluminous that parents may not have the easiest time finding the information that is most important to them,” she wrote.

Education advocates said they applaud the efforts to make data more understandable, but said that too often important information is simply not available to the public. For example, more than 400 fourth-graders in Colorado’s Roaring Fork School District took the state’s standardized math test in 2018, but when advocates requested data about student performance, information about how many of them met grade-level expectations was redacted entirely.

The state makes information about average test scores available by subgroup in many cases, allowing parents to compare performance for students like theirs to the statewide average for that group, as well as other groups within that school or district — provided there are enough students in those categories to avoid redactions.

But advocates argue this gives the public a poor sense of how groups as a whole are doing. Parents can’t see how those scores are distributed within that student group. Are a few students doing particularly well while others lag or are most students performing similarly? Are the students who are not meeting expectations just below the threshold or far behind their peers?

“We don’t believe the state is compromising student data privacy by saying that 10 percent or 20 percent of students are meeting standards at the subgroup level,” said Van Schoales of A Plus Colorado. “We believe the state is solving for a problem that didn’t exist.”

To bolster its case, A Plus commissioned a poll of nearly 1,200 Colorado adults from Change Research that found they broadly agree that school performance data should be more available than it is. However, respondents were less confident when asked about breaking down data by subgroups, and nearly a third thought the state should do more to protect data privacy. Not surprisingly given the complexity of the topic, on several questions a significant number of respondents had no opinion.

Smith said the department has no immediate plans to revisit the question of how much data it releases. Instead, officials want to see how the public uses its new tools and reassess in a year.

Read the full report card here.