Beyond NCLB

Rewrite of federal education law could spur changes to testing, accountability in Colorado


The massive rewrite of federal education law now moving through Congress likely will have little immediate impact in Colorado but eventually could lead to changes in testing, how schools are held accountable and more as states gain more freedom to set their own paths.

“It doesn’t have a significant impact on Colorado, at least in the short term,” said Mary Wickersham, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It allows the states a lot of discretion” in school and district accountability and in interventions for struggling schools, Wickersham said. “All that stuff is left at the discretion of the states.”

If the Senate passes the bill and President Obama signs it, the new landscape will be a familiar one for students, parents, teachers and administrators:

  • Students will continue to take standardized language arts and math tests from third to eighth grade and once in high school.
  • Schools and districts will continue to be rated by the state on the academic performance of their students.
  • Parents and the public will continue to receive reports on those ratings, as well as on the performance of students based on ethnicity, poverty and English language ability.
  • The state and districts will continue to monitor and try to improve the lowest-performing schools.

But three elements of what’s called the Every Student Succeeds Act represent important differences from previous federal law and could lead to changes for Colorado in the future.

State flexibility – The new bill retains many of the broad goals of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which the new measure is intended to replace. But Every Student Succeeds gives states flexibility in setting specific goals and measurements for student achievement and school improvement. “They’re moving to a system that keeps the core principles intact but rejects the one-size-fits-all” model of No Child Left Behind, said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Accountability – The previous law required states to rate schools on “academic” factors, heavily weighted toward test scores. Every Student Succeeds requires states to add at least one “non-academic” factor, things like student and/or educator engagement as measured by surveys, student readiness for the workforce or school climate. States are free to choose which non-academic factors they want to use.

“We’re excited that’s actually required,” interim education Commissioner Elliott Asp told a meeting in Colorado Springs last week. “It requires states to include more than student achievement in the accountability systems.”

The Department of Education recently started studying changes in the accountability and rating system with a work group, and outside groups such as the Student-Centered Accountability Project also are looking at new, broader ways of rating schools and districts.

“We’re on that path,” said Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner. “The timing is pretty good because we’re headed in that direction.” But, she added, “The biggest thing we’re going to have to figure out is that additional indicator.”

Pearson said it hasn’t been determined yet if the Department and the State Board of Education can establish an additional indicator or indicators on their own or if legislative action will be required. The state current accountability system was created by a law passed in 2009.

“The biggest thing is what happens next, what do the rules and regulation look like, what happens at the state level,” Walmer said.

Testing – While Every Student Succeeds leave the testing calendar in place, it does offer the possibility of more flexible testing systems in the future. The bill provides grants states can use to streamline their testing systems, opens the door to use of multiple tests by a state and creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests. Asp highlighted that last provision as a welcome move.

Colorado students are expected to take the PARCC language arts and math tests next spring. There’s not enough time to switch to a new test, Asp told the audience of school board members in Colorado Springs.

But state board chair Steve Durham said, “The odds of continuing with that particular assessment are slim” beyond next year. “But I have only one vote.” A majority of the board is on record as opposing PARCC.

Colorado signed on to the PARCC exams after the legislature passed a law requiring the state to join a multi-state testing group.

The Every Student Succeeds bill maintains the requirement – or perhaps the goal – of 95 percent student participation on statewide tests. But it’s up to states to decide what to do about districts that drop below that level. “The test participation requirement looks a lot like where we are now,” Pearson said. Colorado’s current agreement with the federal government only requires low-participation districts to improve test-taking rates but doesn’t penalize them.

Roughly 1 in 10 Colorado students skipped the math and English assessments as a result of parent refusals last spring.

The Every Student Succeeds bill runs hundreds of pages and includes a long list of other provisions, many of them technical. Pearson said there are few substantial changes in Title I and other sections involving federal aid for poor students and other special populations. There are new provisions that may provide more aid for rural schools, and Walmer said she’s pleased with a new program for preschool development grants.

The first Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 and was significantly modified in 2001 with passage of NCLB. That version was best known for its annual testing mandate and the requirement that all students reach proficiency by 2013-14.

Despite mounting dissatisfaction with the law in recent years, congressional gridlock stymied efforts to update it until this year.

Frustrated by that lack of congressional action, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Education offered states waivers from NCLB. Colorado obtained a waiver and just had it renewed.

Colorado’s original waiver allowed it to use some of its own systems instead of original NCLB requirements. Those state systems were in place before the waiver, including district and school ratings (2009) and use of student academic growth in teacher evaluations (2011). And Colorado’s statewide testing system, originally called CSAP, was created in 1997, before NCLB was passed.

Wickersham noted that the waiver process gave the U.S. Department of Education considerable power over state policies.

“The bill kind of bends over backwards to restrict the power of the Department of Education to decide what states can do,” she said.

The original NCLB law contained no requirements for teacher evaluation. But evaluation is part of Colorado’s waiver agreement with the federal government. State waivers will end next year if the new bill passes, and Every Student Succeeds leaves the details of evaluation systems up the states.

The new bill passed the House 359-64 last week and is scheduled for a Senate vote Tuesday.

Here are key differences between the current law and its would-be replacement, and how things look in Colorado now:

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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.