Setting Standards

Colorado is re-examining its academic standards. Will it avoid the political turmoil seen in other states?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class.

Colorado’s in-depth review of its academic standards — what kids are expected to know in several subjects in each grade — has entered a new and potentially political phase.

About 180 Colorado educators, parents and community members have been split into committees reviewing standards in 11 subjects, along with standards for students learning English as a second language. They also will propose the state’s first academic standards in computer science.

The committees’ work, to be carried out over the 10 months, will help inform the State Board of Education, which must approve any changes to the standards by July 2018.

Other states have become embroiled in controversies over repealing the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado also adopted. But efforts to kill the Common Core in Colorado have not gotten serious traction. A recent state-sanctioned survey found both mixed reviews for the state’s existing standards and little appetite to overhaul them in a big way.

Colorado adopted its current standards in 2010. It was the first time the state had updated its standards since the 1990s. For English and math, it joined 45 other states in adopting the Common Core standards, which were developed by groups representing state governors and education commissioners.

“Our old ways of doing things didn’t put us competitively with the rest of the world,” said Joanie Funderburk, president of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics and co-chair of the math standards committee. “It didn’t allow every person to graduate high school prepared to do whatever they wanted to do.”

The Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and analysis and demphasizes memorization of facts. Supporters believe they are rigorous and if taught correctly prepare students for college and career in the 21st Century. Some critics say the standards either ask too much or too little of students depending on their grade level. Others call them a federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them.

Colorado’s standards update, which is required by state law, opens up the possibility of another round of public debate on the value of the academic standards.

“We’ve done a lot of preplanning to help this be a conversation about substance,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education. “But I don’t think we’re afraid at all to have (political) conversations. We don’t shy away from conversations that are important to have.”

Part of that work leading up to the committees’ first meeting last month included a perception survey and a chance for the public to leave comments on individual standards on the state’s education website. The education department also commissioned a research group to compare the state’s standards to internationally recognized high-quality standards.

The survey found that 49 percent of respondents, which included teachers, parents, and education advocates, had a positive impression of the standards. Similar to national trends, teachers that received more training on the standards liked them more.

About 350 educators, parents and community members left nearly 4,000 additional online comments about individual standards, the department said. The committees will review those comments.

“We didn’t get feedback that was calling for a big overhaul of the standards,” Colsman said.

Some state Board of Education members have strongly opposed the Common Core. Republican members Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Pam Mazanec of Larkspur have described the standards as federal overreach. Durham has bemoaned the move away from emphasizing mastery of facts.

Some states that dropped the Common Core ended up adopting nearly identical standards, just with different names.

In Colorado, the standards have enjoyed support from the governor, lawmakers from both political parties, the state’s education reform and business communities, and the state’s teachers union.

While other states fight over the Common Core, Colorado policy makers have spent their time reducing the number of high-stakes standardized tests, which are meant to measure students’ mastery of the standards.

The research group that compared the state’s standards to other high-performing states and counties found that Colorado’s standards were generally comparable — with some exceptions. In both math and English, the research group said other states and countries did a better job of providing additional background information and resources to help educators teach to the standards.

The standards are often written in technical jargon, and making them more accessible to teachers, students and parents is a key goal for the committees. But it’s unclear how far the state can go in providing additional resources.

The state’s constitutionally protected local control forbids the policymakers from creating a statewide curriculum.

“Bringing better clarity is definitely part of this work,” said Zac Chase, the curriculum coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District and co-chair of the English standards review committee. “But deciding how to use those standards to serve communities will always be the purview of the school district and school board.”

The committees are expected to meet regularly through April, and their meetings are open to the public. The education department is expected to release draft recommendations for more public input early next  year.

“Right now, the work is in the hands of the committees,” Colsman said. “We’ll feel like we’re successful if everyone feels like they had their voice heard.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.