Score card

Proposed shift in Colorado’s school ratings draws ire of education reform, civil rights groups

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

A broad coalition of education reform and civil rights groups is lobbying against a proposed change to the way Colorado rates its schools, arguing that it would fail to provide a complete picture of how schools are educating the state’s most at-risk students.

State Department of Education officials say that few schools’ ratings would change as a result, and that the new system would better gauge how smaller schools are doing.

The State Board of Education is set to vote this week on the revision to the rating system, known as the School Performance Framework.

But it’s uncertain whether the move would be accepted by the federal government. As it stands, proposed guidelines for the nation’s new K-12 education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — would prohibit it.

The proposal is one of several changes to the state’s accountability system the state board is scheduled to consider this week. Schools that fall at the bottom of the state’s rating system for more than five years face sanctions such as being handed over to a charter school or being shut down. The system has been on pause for a year because of a switch in state assessments.

Under the current system, schools are rated based on students’ state test scores and other measures, including graduation rates in the case of high schools.

Schools get points based on the performance of all students, and also on the scores of students in each of five categories of historically underserved populations, such as English language learners, students with individualized lesson plans and those living in poverty.

School districts have complained that the current system penalizes schools with large populations of students that fall under multiple categories, known as subgroups.

“It’s an imbalance and it’s not a fair appraisal,” said Scott Graham, executive director of student academic support for Weld District Re-8. “… Is it fair to count students three or four times?”

In a letter to the State Board of Education supporting the change, Graham and other Weld officials say more than one-third of Fort Lupton students are counted three times.

An example of the new school performance framework report which includes data about how individual student "subgroups" perform on state tests but without points assigned.
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education
An example of the new school performance framework report which includes data about how individual student “subgroups” perform on state tests but without points assigned. Click to enlarge.

Education department staff are recommending that schools earn points based on the scores of all students, and then all five subgroups lumped together. State officials say the result will be a more streamlined system that will be more understandable to parents, teachers and others.

But in a May letter to the state board, a coalition of 22 education reform advocacy and civil rights groups argued the change “would have significant implications for educational equity.”

One argument in the letter is that schools receive funding to meet the needs of subgroups, such as federal Title I funds for the state’s poorest students.

“As of right now, there are dedicated funding streams for educating each of those kids,” said Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst for the libertarian Independence Institute, which is part of the coalition. “As long as we’re funding special needs programs, each of those programs need to produce results and each one needs to be accountable to taxpayers.”

Another signee, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, analyzed state data and predicted results for about 30 of the state’s more than 1,800 schools would be inflated as a result of the proposed change, said Leslie Colwell, the nonprofit’s vice president of education initiatives.

“When you lump all of these groups together, it sends a message that all these kids have the same needs — and that’s not true,” Colwell said.

The districts that got a bump under the advocacy group’s analysis ran the gamut in terms of how they have scored historically on the state system, she said.

The proposed change has begun to attract national attention. On Monday, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights organization, The Leadership Conference, called it a “sleight of hand.”

“You can’t fix a problem that you don’t identify,” Wade Henderson, the conference’s CEO, said in a news release. “Coloradans deserve to know how all students are doing and to expect that the state will use that information to make smart policy decisions about how to help struggling students.”

Graham said the needs of students from historically underrepresented groups would be met under the change. As part of the proposal, reports on each school will still include data on each student subgroup; but when it comes to assigning scores, all those groups will be counted as one.

“Teachers will be able to work with the same data they’ve always had,” he said.

Schools also would be responsible for addressing how they plan to improve instruction for any subgroup of students that does not meet state expectations.

State education department officials point to another upside to the proposed change: a far fuller picture of how small rural schools serve students from underserved populations.

Under the current system, schools are not judged on how they do with a subgroup with fewer than 16 students — the threshold the state uses to protect student privacy. Putting all the subgroups in one large group means those districts will be held into account for those results.

Several states, including Mississippi and Michigan, have taken a similar approach to school ratings under flexibility previously granted by the U.S. Department of Education.

However, proposed guidelines released in-late May state clearly that such ratings would be unacceptable under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner for Accountability/Performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said the department is taking a wait-and-see approach with ESSA regulations.

Pearson added that the state will need to make even more changes to its accountability system by 2017, when ESSA goes into effect.

“This will be an ongoing conversation,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Update: This post has been updated to include an image of the proposed school performance framework. This post has also been updated to more accurately reflect Ross Izard’s comments.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”