opting out

Students in pockets of rural, suburban Colorado drove down PARCC participation

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

By at least one measure, the epicenter of anti-testing backlash in Colorado last spring was an isolated rural community where distrust of government runs deep and the school superintendent gets an earful at the Superette coffee shop if things aren’t going right in the classroom.

The Dolores County School District, based in Dove Creek in southwestern Colorado, had the lowest participation on PARCC English and math tests of any Colorado district — 8.4 percent. Just 13 of 155 students in the farm-rich area near the Utah border took the new tests aligned with the Common Core, according to data made public Friday.

When Colorado gained notice last spring as fertile ground for a movement opting out of state standardized tests, much of the attention fell on protests at high-performing, wealthy suburban districts.

District-level PARCC data released Friday  showed that was warranted — a total of more than 30,000 students from the Boulder Valley, Douglas County and Cherry Creek districts sat out the tests.

But when it came to low participation rates, rural districts led the way. A Chalkbeat analysis found 18 of the 20 districts with the lowest participation rates are rural districts, from all corners of the state.

In other words, the more affluent suburban districts with large student populations had far more students skip the tests, but a greater proportion of students at those rural districts opted out of them.

20 districts with lowest participation

Chalkbeat’s calculations took into account participation in English language arts tests. Participation rates on math tests were similar.

Generally, elementary school test participation was high and participation steadily decreased in higher grades, sinking in high school. High school testing for 2016 was curtailed in testing reform legislation passed this year.

Low participation in state tests typically carry consequences for school and districts, but not this year.

Federal law requires at least 95 percent participation on language arts and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. In Colorado, districts that fall short have faced a one-step reduction in their accreditation rating in years past.

But a testing reform law passed last spring created a one-year timeout in the accountability system. The U.S Department of Education’s recent approval of Colorado’s waiver from federal education laws also means Colorado school districts won’t face the loss of accreditation. However, districts with substandard test participation will be required to spell out plans for boosting it.

Just 32 school districts reported their overall PARCC participation at 95 percent or above, according to a Chalkbeat review.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural School Alliance, said opt-out momentum in rural districts gained steam after a resolution last spring from the state Board of Education saying districts and schools shouldn’t be punished for low participation. Word travels fast in small communities, she said, and there’s a “lack of buy-in” in the testing and accountability system.

“These people live in districts where their accreditation rating has changed from year to year because one family moves out,” Murphy said.

In Dolores County, Superintendent Bruce Hankins was a vocal opponent of the tests, arguing the results come far too late to inform classroom instruction and are too flawed to use for accountability. Hankins made it easy on parents, providing a form letter on the district website for opting students out of tests. If he needs to be held accountable, he said, it’s going to happen at the local coffee shop.

“Parents are tired of their kids being stressed out over a test that doesn’t mean anything to them,” Hankins said. “They are tired of teachers being beat up when they are busting their butts to do what is best for kids. And they’re tired of districts and schools being labeled failures when they know they’re not.”

Concerns also were voiced, Hankins said, about the government unnecessarily collecting data on students. The district is about 93 percent white and has no English language learners. Hankins said many families qualify for subsidized lunches but won’t apply because they don’t think their income is anyone’s business.

A number of rural Colorado districts, including the Dolores County district, are working toward developing an alternative accountability system that moves beyond using state tests as the primary measure.

Not all rural districts harbored anti-testing sentiment. Three Colorado school districts reported 100 percent PARCC participation, and all were rural: Prairie, Genoa-Hugo and Stratton. A number of other rural districts reported participation numbers well above the state average.

Participation rates in Colorado’s 10 largest districts

No district had more students skip the tests than Douglas County. More than 13,700 students did not participate, putting the south suburban district’s participation rate at about 70 percent. District leadership has been sharply critical of the state testing system.

“Parents have patiently waited for the standardized testing movement to get to the right amount of tests and the right tests and the right experience for their children, and I think their level of frustration has steadily grown because they haven’t seen movement in the right direction in their opinion,” said Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen.

The participation rate in the Boulder Valley School District was even lower — 67 percent. The highest opt-out rates were at the two high schools in Boulder where protests of earlier state social studies and science tests attracted widespread attention and likely helped fuel the PARCC opt-out movement.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger said his sense is that parents weren’t targeting PARCC, but rather were reacting to what they perceive to be the burdensome nature of state assessments as a whole.

“It was their way of saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Messinger said.

The state also documented cases in which parents refused to allow their children to take the tests. However, districts were not required to turn over documentation of refusals, so the picture is incomplete. Others may have skipped the test in protest without filling out forms.

Backers of the tests argue they are critical to ensuring the state has an accurate picture of student achievement, especially with poor and minority children.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the state’s academic standards and aligned tests, said the central question is whether high opt-outs will hide achievement gaps in some districts.

She said that while she understands parental rights, large numbers of opt-outs mean the state doesn’t get a true understanding of challenges facing schools.

“You are not getting the full picture,” Pharo Carter said.

Graphics by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.