reading is fundamental

Proposed change to early literacy testing would harm English learners, critics say

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

The State Board of Education is weighing a change in how Colorado gives early literacy tests, a proposal Denver Public Schools and others say would unduly burden English learners, produce faulty data and infringe on local control.

The board is considering adopting new rules governing the READ Act, a 2012 state law that focuses on literacy in kindergarten through third grade. The law calls for using tests to identify and help students with significant reading deficiencies.

The proposed revision would apply to English learners who get literacy instruction in both English and Spanish — in other words, students in bilingual or dual-language instruction programs.

Under the proposal, students tested in reading in Spanish also would need to be tested in reading in English every year, too. Roughly 6,500 Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade would be impacted, state officials say.

The state board discussed the issue Wednesday but put off a vote until March.

In a letter and comments to the board, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova argued the proposed change conflicts with the READ Act and will have a “damaging impact” on English learners.

Cordova said if adopted, the rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy.

Cordova pointed to the battery of tests already facing students who are trying to learn in their native language while simultaneously being taught a new one. Those assessments include early literacy tests, state assessments in English and math that begin in third grade, and an English proficiency test called ACCESS given in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Susana Cordova, right.
PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

“English learners have double the work, so to speak, and yet are also subjected to the most assessments,” she said.

Cordova also said the proposed change risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems and conflicts with the principle of local control, “the foundation of Colorado’s education laws and regulations.”

“We strongly believe in the power of assessments,” Cordova told the board. “But this additional requirement will take valuable instructional time away with very little return in instructional value that we don’t already have from other resources.”

Jorge Garcia, vice president of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education, argued the proposed change amounts to an unfunded mandate. He said teachers, students and administrators have no problem with how the READ Act is structured now.

“If it’s not broken,” he said, “don’t fix it.”

The original READ Act rules adopted in 2013 required testing of all students in kindergarten through third grade in English to identify significant reading deficiencies. Some districts, however, chose to also test in Spanish.

After some in the education community raised concerns about students being tested twice, the state Attorney General’s office in August 2014 issued an opinion affirming that the focus of the READ Act is on the skill of reading, “not the language in which it is employed.” The rules were changed as a result.

The rules are being revisited now because of testing reform legislation last spring that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

State board member Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, said the READ Act is the only state initiative measuring reading in kindergarten through third grade, and the two tests are necessary to determine whether the state is getting return on its investment.

Debora Scheffel
Debora Scheffel

“It seems that these rules are designed to help parents and teachers and kids know if they are progressing toward being able to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade in English and Spanish,” said Scheffel, part of a group of board members who frequently vote in the majority. “And that’s why the two tests make sense.”

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that based on conversations with the board, she believes members want to ensure that students getting bilingual or dual-language instruction meet those programs’ goals — biliteracy and bilingualism.

Department staff are trying to craft language that doesn’t go beyond the board’s statutory authority, Dorman said.

After hearing the concerns of DPS and others, Department of Education staff drafted an alternative proposal that would give more leeway to districts. The language confused some board members Wednesday, and questions arose about whether the alternative simply would preserve the status quo. Scheffel suggested that staff come up with third option for the board to consider.

Under the READ Act tests, students found to be struggling with reading get individual plans to help them reach grade level. The law also provides funding to support intervention.

Education Commissioner Richard Crandall, in his first board meeting in the position, asked the education department’s attorney general’s office representative whether the READ Act’s intent is to produce an English data point for every student.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl replied that he believes the answer is no. The READ Act, he said, “seemed to go to great pains” to not say which language is to be used to measure literacy, leaving that to local districts to decide.

“That greatly changes my opinion of the situation,” Crandall said.

He didn’t elaborate.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova’s letter to the state board:

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.