Future of Schools

New tests will still affect state accountability measures

Teachers, schools and districts hoping for some time to adjust to Colorado’s new state testing regimen won’t get long, according to a plan presented at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

ACT test

Results from the host of new tests, which accompany the state’s adoption of the Common Core standards, will factor into district and school rankings within a year of their first administration. New tests are being rolled out in various subjects over the course of the next two years.

As for teachers, their students’ performance on the new tests will factor into their year-end evaluations starting in 2016.

“Some states declared a timeout,” said Elliott Asp, the special assistant to the commissioner and one of the architects behind the state’s plan for testing. “We don’t want to go there.”

In Louisiana and Massachusetts, legislators delayed the inclusion of new Common Core-associated tests in the state accountability measures.

Same rules, lower scores

If the rollout in other states is any indication, Colorado can expect a decline in scores, a prediction affirmed the Colorado Department of Education.

Still, Asp sees it as a change in scores, rather than a decrease.

Yes, he conceded, fewer students were likely to score proficient. But that because “we’re creating a new baseline,” he said. “We setting a higher bar.”

Even so, the tests will be included in state rankings starting this year, although schools and districts will only be scored for student participation, not their performance. Including the scores in rankings would have delayed their release and prevented schools from using them in their state-mandated improvement plans. So for this year, districts get a break and gives them a chance to adjust.

“It allows districts to use them in lower-stakes environment,” said Asp.

New social studies and science tests will be administered spring 2014. Math and language arts tests will follow shortly, in 2015. State rankings for the 2013-14 school school year will include participation on the social studies and science tests but not the scores from those assessments.

But scores from the math and language arts tests will be used in state accountability measures. So schools will see a delay in their ranking for the 2014-2015 school year.

The clock still counts down

The new standards could have a big impact on schools and districts who could face state sanctions soon if their rankings don’t improve significantly.

Schools entering their final years on the state’s “accountability clock” after the tests roll out won’t get a break. They will still be responsible for their students’ scores, starting in 2015.

For the two districts for whom the clock is running out this year, the new tests will have little to no effect. But for those with one or two years left on the clock, the new tests could have big impacts. Eleven districts could potentially face challenges to their accreditation by June 2016, based in part on their scores on the first round of tests this spring. Three others could be held accountable for the full complement of tests.

“It raises some questions we haven’t answered yet,” said Asp.

Part of the state’s solution is divorcing performance on current tests from the new tests. The state is convening a group of experts next summer to establish new expectations for student performance on the tests, based on the first year of results. They will reconvene in 2015 for the second round of tests.

Asp also expects that schools and districts will make use of the state’s appeals process.

This year, the Colorado Department of Education processed 10 applications from schools and districts to adjust their state ranking. At the board meeting, Keith Owen, the state’s deputy commissioner raised concerns about the state’s capacity to handle reconsiderations if the number dramatically increased.

Federal influence

Owen also said that part of the driver for using the tests immediately was meeting federal expectations given Colorado’s No Child Left Behind waiver, prompting some dismay from board members. Paul Lundeen, who chairs the State Board of Education, pointed out that previous changes in assessments came from within the state.

“(Before) it was more of our design and more of our creature,” said Lundeen. “Inertia for this transition has moved out of the state. It’s an elephant (of a task).”

Still, he said, “it’s a routine elephant.” The state is capable of handling the transition, he said.

“We believe we can handle this with integrity,” said Robert Hammond, the state’s commissioner of education.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.