taking count

Opt-out aftershock: Colorado school ratings called into question for low participation on tests

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

The large number of students who skipped this spring’s state standardized tests is throwing a wrench into the high-stakes process of determining the quality of Colorado’s schools.

State education department officials putting together the latest annual school quality ratings have flagged more than half of the state’s districts and one-third of its schools for test participation below the federally required minimum of 95 percent. The ratings are preliminary, and districts and schools may appeal before they are finalized this winter.

While districts that fell below that participation mark will not face negative consequences under Colorado law, state officials are urging the public to proceed with caution in considering ratings in places with high testing opt-out rates.

Some school leaders and advocates are crying foul, however, arguing that it’s irresponsible to rate schools based on incomplete data. Meanwhile, longtime critics of the ratings are seizing on the development to renew calls to reform the the system.

Colorado’s high opt-out rate “raises suspicion around all the data that is being shown to folks,” said Oliver Grenham, Westminster Public Schools’ chief academic officer, a longtime critic of the state’s accountability system.

Colorado rates schools and districts based primarily on results from the state’s English and math tests. Other factors, such as graduation rates, play a lesser role.

The ratings are used to identify schools and districts that are falling behind the rest of the state academically. If those schools and district’s don’t improve within five years, the state is supposed to step in to force more drastic changes, such as closing low-performing schools.

That system to rate, rank and compare schools was created in 2009, when nearly every student took the state’s standardized exams. While there have long been philosophical divides among educators and advocates on the value of the ratings, most everyone agreed that the data was valid.

That isn’t the case now. State officials have urged caution with the testing data, in part because of low participation numbers, since the first results of the state’s new assessments were released in 2015.

“When it’s comparative and not comparable, how do you continue to trust that we’re not causing more harm than good?” said Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton School District. “It’s a question of fairness.”

Changes, challenges to the system

State education officials for months have been working to retool the state’s accountability system to account for the changes in the state’s testing system.

In 2015, Colorado began using the PARCC exams to measure student’s understanding of English and math. That same year, lawmakers codified the right for parents to exempt their students from the exams. In addition, schools would not be held liable if their participation rates dipped below 95 percent because of parent refusals.

“We’re trying to implement the accountability law in a very different context and we’re trying to figure out what that means now,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state’s chief accountability officer.

Districts and schools that had too many students excused from the test will receive the rating of “insufficient state data, low participation.”

According to preliminary numbers, eight small districts and 32 schools will receive that rating.

“(Opt-out) has certainly made it more challenging to run the accountability system, because we just want to be very transparent about what all of this means,” Pearson said.

Another 74 districts and 486 schools essentially will have an asterisk next to their rating denoting low participation, according to preliminary ratings.

State officials expect those numbers to rise, however.

Some 20 districts, mostly rural, and 111 schools did not notify the state correctly about the number of students who were excused from the tests by their parents. That error triggered the state to manually lower the ratings.

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests last fall, a precursor to PARCC backlash (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)
Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests last fall, a precursor to PARCC backlash (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

The state is still required to decrease a school’s or district’s rating if fewer than 95 percent of students who are eligible to take the test and are not excused by their parents skip the test.

School and district officials must now submit new data through an appeals process to have their rating increased.

“We trust that CDE is going to do its best to make this process smooth,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural School Alliance. “But our districts have real concerns about privacy concerns and the administrative burden it places on their already stressed staff.”

State officials have promised an expedited process for those districts and schools.

The largest school district to have its rating lowered because of the coding error —Mesa Valley School District 51 — will ask the state to remove its rating all together.

“We believe the participation rates have caused a situation where our accreditation rating doesn’t accurately reflect our student performance, because only a portion participated in the performance,” said Tony Giurado, chief academic officer for the Mesa schools in Grand Junction.

About 30 percent of the district’s students opted out of the state’s tests, Giurado said.

Other districts may file similar appeals, said Pearson, the state’s accountability officer. In those cases, the state will be examining whether students who took the tests are representative of district students.

Renewed criticism

The release of the state’s preliminary school ratings, especially with the new flag for low participation, is resurfacing criticism of the state’s accountability system.

“One of the opt-out movement’s goals in Colorado was forcing change in the state’s so-called accountability system,” said Bob Schaeffer, director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a critic of standardized testing. “And the first step is raising questions about its validity, which the asterisks certainly do.”

Several school leaders say they hope the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will let Colorado lawmakers return rating school quality to the district level.

A group of rural schools has already begun testing a new accountability system that relies on both state and local data, including parent and teacher surveys.

The Cherry Creek School District, a hotbed of the opt-out movement, is developing its own rating system this year, said Judy Skupa, the district’s assistant superintendent.

Similar to Denver Public Schools’ own school rating system, Cherry Creek will rate its schools and provide the information to school staff, parents and students. While still in development, the ratings will focus on key educational milestones like how many students are reading by third grade.

Skupa said one of the reasons why Cherry Creek is developing its own system is because the district believes the state’s ratings are imbalanced and don’t measure what’s actually happening at the school.

“I think what we see in this system, particularly for K-8, the rating is totally dependent on a state assessment. We are so much more than a state assessment,” she said. “I don’t think we have thought outside of the box.”

Absent new legislation, state officials are left to manage the accountability system within the confines of the 2009 law.

“We know we don’t have the whole story,” said Pearson, referring to districts with high opt-out rates. “We need to figure out what we value in accountability within our new context, and how we want to move forward with accountability with this context of opt-out.”

capital crunch

As New York City’s public housing crumbles, pre-K centers go without crucial repairs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Yvette Ho, right, taps out a request to NYCHA to fix a leaky roof at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center. Meanwhile, a student shows her art project to Mary Cheng, who oversees early childhood programs for the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit that runs the daycare.

The tables where children would normally play had been dragged to create a makeshift barrier, blocking the 3- and 4-year olds from their favorite centers and from a growing puddle on the floor.

The ceiling at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center in the East Village was leaking again.

Center director Yvette Ho rushed to the classroom to survey the damage. On her phone, she tapped out a repair request to the landlord — NYCHA, New York City’s public housing authority.

“This is the perennial leak,” she said. “Just when you think it’s fixed, it comes back again.”

Decades of divestment, neglect, and mismanagement have left NYCHA buildings crumbling, forcing the city to give up some of its control of the housing authority to a federal overseer in an agreement struck last month. The plight of residents has been well documented in media reports and a scathing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which uncovered out-of-service elevators, faulty heaters, and health hazards like rodent infestations, mold, and lead paint.

But few realize that nestled within those buildings are about 100 child care centers that serve infants and toddlers even while critically needed repairs stack up. Mostly run by nonprofits that rent space from NYCHA, those programs offer a lifeline for families, often earning high marks from the city’s reviewers while also providing subsidized or free care for almost 5,000 children.

The programs face citations for facilities issues more often than programs in buildings leased from private landlords, a survey by the Day Care Council of New York found recently. Though it’s not always clear who is responsible for making repairs, operators can face burdensome fines.

Providers “have to dig into their own pockets,” said Mai Miksic, a research analyst for the Day Care Council. “They’re paying fines for problems that aren’t theirs.”

Groups representing nonprofit providers operating out of NYCHA community centers have begun to join together to advocate for changes, and they say officials have shown interest in taking action. They also say they know that their needs represent only a sliver of the pressing facilities problems facing the country’s largest public housing agency and its residents. Remediation of lead paint in agency apartments where children live is behind schedule, and the city estimates that NYCHA needs a total of more than $30 billion in repairs and upgrades.

Day care centers alone require $130 million in fixes, according to NYCHA. That figure likely does not include problems that affect the entire buildings where the centers are located, such as boilers that need replacing.

The Jacob Riis houses, which were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, needs almost $94 million in renovations over the next five years, including heating upgrades and drainage work, according to city figures.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a 54-year-old social services organization that runs daycares and community programs in Lower Manhattan and Queens, has cared for small children in the complex for decades. It currently uses three classrooms in the basement of one of the towers, including one — the one with the persistent leak — that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heralded Pre-K for All program.

Staff and children at the center have a front-row seat to the building’s problems. A steam pipe in the main hallway frequently bursts. With every explosion, waterlogged ceiling tiles come crashing down and the center’s only bathroom for children becomes off-limits due to dripping, scalding-hot water. NYCHA has encased the temperamental pipe in a makeshift closet.

At times, the facility’s troubles have seemed too disruptive for the Chinese-American Planning Council to justify keeping its center in the building. All the garbage for the tower piles into a compactor room in the middle of the center. The only way to empty it, twice a day, is to haul the trash past classrooms and out an open door.

But Mary Cheng, the director of childhood services for the planning council, said they’ve resolved to stay because closing isn’t a good option, either — not for kids of such a young age, who thrive on stability, and not for parents who rely on the center’s longer hours so they can work to support their families.

We had to think: Are we being a service to the community or a disservice?” Cheng asked. “You’re faced with the issue of constant facility issues.”

Operators say they stay because NYCHA centers are usually where their services can have the most impact, and because the more affordable rent allows them to stretch their dollars even further.

“These buildings were built with community spaces for a reason. Neighborhoods need places for people to gather,” said Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs programs for seniors and after-school care in NYCHA buildings. “If we’re crumbling, it sends a really powerful message to the residents about their worth.”

NYCHA says it takes just over 10 days for the authority to respond to repair requests in community centers — a much shorter turnaround of more than a month across the system. Still, it’s a long window that advocates say has sometimes forced programs to shut their doors or even have their licenses yanked.

The nonprofit Union Settlement runs five early childhood centers in NYCHA buildings across East Harlem. Sometimes, they’ve had to turn parents away who come to drop off their children in the morning because the classrooms are unbearably cold in the winter. The group is usually able to make space at another facility when an emergency forces one to close, but the sudden change can pose a “huge hardship” for families who need to get to work on time, said David Nocenti, the executive director.

“The same problems that the residents have, the nonprofits have as we’re trying to serve those residents,” Nocenti said. “Just like boilers go out in residential buildings and there’s no heat, the same boiler generally affects the community centers as well.”

Facilities breakdowns can leave operators vulnerable to fines from the city health department, which can reach thousands of dollars. Most programs operating in NYCHA centers are subsidized by city, state, and federal funds, but typically public money can’t be used to cover the citations. At Jacob Riis, the staff has resorted to “simple fundraisers” like bake sales to pay the fines, Cheng said. 

Centers take more than just a budgetary hit, as resolving the citations usually requires managers or other high-ranking officials spending hours at a city hearing.

“It’s also a loss of the staff and a loss of the expertise at that time as well,” Nocenti said. “If the department of health comes and you have no heat, you get fined for no heat, even though we don’t control the boiler and can’t make repairs to the boiler.”

Aase said her organization has sometimes dug into its own budget to make repairs to keep its after-school and senior programs open. One University Settlement center has paid deep cleanings after 17 sewage floods in the course 12 months, she said, while another center with a rodent infestation has closed 10 times over the span of a year and required spending on extermination services.

A record of citations could pose problems for operators vying for city contracts, so it’s better to pay for fixes than risk your reputation, Aase said.

“When you have violations, it shows up as you’re being vetted,” she said. “We spend our own money because we know either that NYCHA doesn’t have the funds or doesn’t have the personnel to address the issue quickly enough, and community members want to come back.”

Calling themselves the NYCHA Community Space Coalition, service providers that run more than 200 programs within public housing facilities have drawn up an action plan for addressing what they say is an emergency situation. They are calling for state money to help pay for repairs, and reimbursement from the city when operators tap their own budgets for fixes. They are also asking for agreements that plainly spell out NYCHA’s responsibilities and a clear delineation of who is responsible for which fines.

There have been encouraging signs, said J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst with United Neighborhood Houses, one of the organizations behind the coalition. NYCHA is meeting weekly with other city agencies to help speed up repairs, and Falcone said the authority has designated specific people to oversee work on pressing issues.

Locally, there have been small changes that can make a notable difference in the day-to-day operation of a center. At Jacob Riis, the trash is now taken out once before students arrive in the morning, and a lock has been placed on the door to the compactor room which had previously been left open and posed a potential risk to children.

While providers have found willing partners, a NYCHA official suggested there’s only so much that can be done when faced with such deep needs across the housing authority.

“These centers are valuable assets to our communities that deserve to be preserved. But given NYCHA’s dire financial position and more than $30 billion in capital needs, it is difficult to accommodate both the repairs needed to secure our residents’ homes as well as the fixes for our centers,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to work with our partners to clearly lay out roles and responsibilities for each party to determine the best strategy for financing existing repair needs within the context of NYCHA’s larger capital needs.”

These thorny problems will soon fall also to the city’s education department to help resolve.

Currently, contracts for publicly subsidized child-care centers are overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. But that oversight is set to shift to the education department beginning this summer, part of a high-stakes effort to streamline services for the city’s children from birth through high school. Already, the education department has joined NYCHA’s regular meetings with other city agencies.

We’ll continue to work closely with our providers in NYCHA facilities and support them through this transition,” education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy wrote in an email.

For now, parents are left to keep their fingers crossed as they make use of programs that the mayor says could transform their children’s lives — and the city’s future.

Dexter Fauntleroy drops off his son at Jacob Riis most mornings. Three-year-old Kenai has gone to daycare there for most of his short life. Fauntleroy and his wife have kept their youngest son enrolled at the center, just down the street from their apartment in the Lillian Wald houses, because they’re impressed with how much Kenai has learned and the dedication they see from the staff.

Of course, Fauntleroy has noticed the persistent leaks and patch-job repairs. The thought that the roof could come crashing down on students someday has crossed his mind.

“Does that have to happen before it’s taken seriously?” he asked. “There has to be some accountability.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.