Next week, Principal Lori Heller will drive to Denver from her tiny elementary school on the Eastern Plains for a hearing before the state Board of Education. She’ll bring along her kindergarten teacher, who this year has 10 students in her class.

They’ll be asking the board to grant their district, Peetz Plateau, an exception to a state rule that requires Colorado schools to assess kindergarteners using certain approved tools. If the vote goes in their favor — it didn’t on their first try in August — Peetz Plateau will be among eight school districts and 80 charter schools that have received such waivers over the last two years.

School and district leaders who’ve gotten the waivers see them as common-sense measures that give them more control over assessment decisions. But for some early childhood advocates the growing numbers of waivers are troubling — a sign that the lofty ambitions of a major 2008 school reform law are being watered down.

That law, called CAP4K, mandated that kindergarteners be assessed to see how well they were doing on a range of academic, developmental and behavioral skills as they entered school. And the results weren’t just for parents and teachers. They would be reported in aggregate to state lawmakers.

That is still set to happen, probably in about 18 months. Even so, there’s been a growing chorus of worry that those aggregate results won’t provide much clarity if they’ve been gleaned from many different types of assessments, some of which have been nationally vetted for validity and reliability, and many others that have been developed locally without rigorous scientific evaluation.

“At some point the state needs to step back and say, ‘Do we believe in the aggregate assessment of how our kids are doing at kindergarten entry or are we OK with not really knowing,’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Given the growing variability in assessment tools, he said, “It’s going to be very hard to know the value of investments we’re making in early childhood.”

State board members — both Democrats and Republicans — have also worried that the growing number of kindergarten assessment systems will make it impossible to meet their obligation to the legislature.

School districts with kindergarten readiness waivers

  • Academy 20
  • Cheyenne Mountain
  • Holyoke
  • Elbert County
  • Lewis-Palmer
  • Woodlin
  • Wray

During a hearing on a waiver request by the 6,300-student Lewis-Palmer district last April, board vice chair Angelika Schroeder said, “I just don’t believe that the legislature asked us to check on kindergarten readiness and then have it nicked away and nicked away until there isn’t anything were actually providing to them.”

At the same time, officials from districts and schools that have sought waivers say they are committed to kindergarten readiness assessments but prefer to use locally-grown systems developed with staff input over several years.

“Long before CAP4K…we had a pretty robust screening and diagnostic process in place that we used with all our kindergarteners,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, which won its waiver in March.

The process was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school nurses.

“We did not want to abandon what we had been doing that had been so successful for us,” Cooper said.

In small rural districts, which represent five of the eight districts that have sought waivers, administrators say small class sizes and the close-knit nature of their communities ensure that teachers are intimately familiar with students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“They’re not going to get lost,” Heller said.

Rocky roll-out

One reason for the rocky transition to the kindergarten assessment system mandated under CAP4K and the growing stream of waiver requests has been frustration with the first assessment approved by the state.

Called Teaching Strategies GOLD, it’s now one of three approved assessments, but remains the most widely used one. (Unlike assessments for older kids, which might be paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests, kindergarten readiness assessments rely on teachers to observe students and document their skills.)

Over the past few years, many teachers and administrators have complained that GOLD is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes hobbled by technological snafus. In some districts, there were also concerns about privacy since the online tool allows teachers to document student progress using photos and videos of kids.

Since then, several changes have been made, including cutting the number of items on GOLD nearly in half and and requiring parental permission for student photos and videos. The streamlined version of GOLD was unveiled this fall.

But even with the improvements, administrators like Lori Heller say the tool duplicates what her school is already doing. Since Peetz Plateau hasn’t yet received a waiver, the kindergarten teacher used both the usual district assessments as well as GOLD this fall.

“At this point, we’re not getting any additional information from TS GOLD about students that we don’t already have,” Heller said. “It’s not really helping to drive our instruction.”

The situation was similar last year at Roots Elementary, a Denver charter school that opened in the fall of 2015 but didn’t have a waiver until this year.

Principal Jon Hanover said while he usually lands on the side of more assessment and accountability, he doesn’t feel that way about GOLD. The school used it along with a raft of other carefully chosen assessments last year.

It’s well-intentioned, he said, but puts an unnecessary burden on kids and teachers and didn’t add anything to the data they already collected.

Numbers stable for now

Despite worries about a mishmash of kindergarten assessment systems now in use across Colorado, it’s unclear whether the number will grow further.

Currently, Peetz Plateau is the only district scheduled for a waiver hearing at an upcoming state board meeting. Officials at the education department said they weren’t aware of any other pending requests.

With the requirement for statewide kindergarten readiness assessment now in its second year, it’s possible educators are getting used to the new system. Even before the tool was scaled down this year, it garnered praise from some teachers who said it provides a comprehensive picture of how children are doing and is easy for parents to understand.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she’s heard positive feedback from districts since the simplified version of GOLD was released.

“They like it better,” she said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”

Even with the changes, some rural district leaders believe GOLD is more than they need in their small communities, Murphy said.

Low bar for some applicants?

Some district officials have been surprised by what they see as inconsistencies in how the state decides who gets kindergarten readiness assessment waivers and who doesn’t.

Some waivers, especially those from charter schools, seem to sail through the approval process. Others have faltered even when modeled on successful waiver applications submitted by other charter schools or districts. In addition, some district waivers expire after three years while others continue into perpetuity.

These disparities are partly due to the three different waiver pathways that exist in state law — one for charter schools, one for school districts and one for schools or districts seeking innovation status.

But timing also seems to be a factor, with more scrutiny for some districts that have sought waivers later in the process when the number of waivers was beginning to alarm the state board.

Cooper said his staff developed their waiver application in close collaboration with a local charter school that had easily obtained a waiver the year before. He said he was surprised at the “double standard of scrutiny” applied to Cheyenne Mountain’s proposal — hours of conference calls with state education department officials and multiple revisions to parts of the plan.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning at the education department, said, “We recognize that a charter that comes forward with a waiver request has already had a level of oversight and scrutiny by their district or local authorizer.”

The education department plays that vetting role for school districts requesting waivers, she said.

But Cooper argued that local school boards vet waivers from both charters and their own school districts, so the different standard by the state doesn’t make sense.

Murphy also lamented the high bar that districts such as Peetz Plateau must hurdle to get waivers.

“I’d just like to see small rural (districts) have an easier time in the review process,” she said.