No go

Sheridan loses bid to upgrade state quality rating

Sheridan Middle School

After a months-long effort, the Sheridan school district has failed in its bid to improve its state accreditation rating.

The State Board of Education voted 5-2 Wednesday to reject the district’s request to change its 2015 rating of “priority improvement” to “improvement.”

The district had argued that the change was warranted because it should be permitted to exclude the performance of its alternative high school from the district’s overall rating. But Department of Education officials who analyzed Sheridan’s bid concluded Sheridan didn’t meet the requirements for excluding results from the alternative school.

The district’s ratings are about more than bragging rights. State law makes districts subject to state intervention if they’ve been in the two lowest of the five rating categories for five consecutive years. Those classifications are priority improvement and turnaround. Sheridan is in that situation but is not in immediate danger of state action because the accreditation clock is stopped for this school year.

Sheridan is one of the metro area’s smallest districts, with 1,536 students, and it’s also one of the poorest. Superintendent Michael Clough told the board that 85 percent of the district’s students are minorities, more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, and 25 percent are homeless.

Clough and leaders of some similar districts feel the state’s rating system unfairly penalizes them and doesn’t fully recognize the growth such districts are making. The Mapleton school district, which also has high rates of poverty and low achievement, lost a similar ratings appeal in 2013.

“Nobody likes a mark on their community. I don’t feel it [the rating] is an accurate reflection on our community,” Clough said.

The superintendent found a sympathizer in Democratic board member Val Flores of Denver, who said the accountability system punishes “districts that have a large percentage of minority students. … It just isn’t fair when know the state just isn’t providing the resources.”

Sheridan argued that its three regular schools are each rated more highly than the district as a whole and that the district would move up on the rating scale if performance of its alternative campus, SOAR Academy, were removed from calculation of the district rating. State law allows that, but only under certain conditions.

Alternative education campuses serve high school and older students who meet certain risk factors, such as being dropouts and being far behind grade level. There are about 80 such schools around the state.

The district and education department staff disagreed over the improvement data provided by Sheridan for the district and for SOAR.

“They really are starting to see some improvement,” said Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner. “Unfortunately when we saw the data it just didn’t merit reconsideration.”

The board was persuaded by its staff and voted 5-2 to reject Sheridan’s appeal, Flores and Republican member Debora Scheffel of Parker voted no.

See a summary of Sheridan’s case here and CDE’s reasoning here.

Colorado’s waiver application remains on hold

The board’s long day also included an update on the state of the state’s application to the federal government for flexibility in meeting some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

The application hasn’t been formally filed yet as education department staff continue to negotiate terms of the deal with the U.S. Department of Education. The board took no action Wednesday.

The most interesting part of the update was new information about how Washington regards widespread test boycotting in Colorado last spring.

Here’s a summary of what CDE staff told the board:

USDE has indicated that the following would meet their requirements for addressing participation

  • Calculate and report state assessment participation rates for all schools and districts and disaggregated groups.
  • Schools and districts that fall below 95 percent participation in one or more of the state-administered English Language Arts or Math assessments address low participation rates as part of their Unified Improvement Plan.
  • Raise the issue of low participation rates, when applicable, with all Priority Improvement and Turnaround districts as well as priority schools, focus schools, and all other Title I schools with participation rates below 95 percent.
  • Provide information to low assessment participation rate schools and districts to share with their communities regarding the state assessments, including reasons for administering the assessments and how the results are used.

Board member Pam Mazanec of Larkspur summed it up this way: “So they want us to address the less than 95 percent participation by providing lots of data [and] we promise we try to get more participation.”

“They’ve indicated they will not take any direct action with those districts that are falling short” in participation, said Pat Chapman, CDE director of federal programs. “They’re quick to point out the conversation isn’t over yet.”

But, he added, “The indication is we’re close to what they want to see.”

See the full CDE update on the flexibility application here, and get more details on the issue in this Chalkbeat story.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.