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.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: