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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.