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Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

The Colorado Way

Feds approve Colorado’s education plan after multiple revisions, but critics see more work to do

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

Colorado finally received approval for its federally mandated education plan Monday, one year and two revisions after the state first submitted it.

Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.

“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.

“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.

Educational and civil rights advocates who have been involved in the development of the plan say that it’s improved in some ways, but they’re concerned that the existence of two accountability systems – or three in the case of districts like Denver that have their own school ratings – will lead to more confusion unless there’s a clear way of sharing information with parents.

Schools identified as “turnaround” or “priority improvement” status under state law won’t necessarily be flagged for improvement under ESSA, and vice versa.

“Our concern with having two different systems is that there may be confusion among parents about which system actually tells them how their school and district is performing,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the Equity in Colorado Coalition.

And bilingual educators say the approved plan fails to address two key problems, the lack of assessments in students’ native language and inconsistent criteria for when students learning English keep receiving services or transition out.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, requires each state to submit a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals.

Without an approved plan, Colorado schools risked losing access to nearly $200 million in federal funds for children from low-income families, and other aid. ESSA also provides $10 million a year to Colorado schools that have been flagged as needing improvement.

Colorado has been a center of the “opt-out” movement of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested. In response, the State Board of Education forbid lowering a school’s quality rating if fewer than 95 percent of its students were tested. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that Colorado treat students who don’t take the test as if they were not proficient, the lowest ranking. This became a key sticking point.

Under the approved plan, Colorado schools with high opt-out rates will need to come up with plans to test more of their students. This comes even as state lawmakers this year banned the use of rewards like pizza parties for students who take the tests. Instead, schools will have to make the case to parents and students that the tests are meaningful and important.

Two other key differences:

  • The federal government will rate schools based on four-year graduation rates, while Colorado lets schools use the best result from its four-, five-, six- or seven-year graduation rates.
  • The federal government will rate alternative high schools based on their graduation rate, while Colorado looks at completion rate, a broader measure that includes students who get a GED.

ESSA also lets states choose non-academic measures of student success against which school quality can be judged. In Colorado, one of those will be chronic absenteeism, and some schools are trying innovative programs to work with parents to help them get their kids to school.

Colorado’s student data privacy regulations means that the state won’t be reporting detailed information about small subgroups to federal regulators, an issue that advocacy groups say limits the public’s ability to understand how schools are doing.

State education officials have embraced the “flexibility” offered by ESSA in comparison to No Child Left Behind, but during a panel discussion earlier this year, Alexandra Alonso of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization, stressed that the new law needs to be understood as a piece of civil rights legislation.

“It’s not intended to create more autonomy for states,” Alonso said. “It’s intended to have more equitable outcomes for our students.”

In that regard, Colorado’s plan still needs work, said Jorge García, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. There still isn’t a consistent enough standard for promoting students out of English acquisition programs, García said. Students languishing in those classes too long suffer, he said.

“It denies them access to electives,” he said. “It denies them access to the entire schedule of classes. It denies them access to the full content of the classes. They don’t take the classes that prepare them for college and a career. This particular high stakes decision is hurting a lot of our students.”

Colorado’s ESSA plan also doesn’t indicate any intention to develop Spanish-language math assessments.

Colorado received wide praise for its work to reach out to community groups, advocates, and school districts as it developed its plan, and Colwell said community groups will continue to work with the Colorado Department of Education to shape implementation of the plan.

“I am incredibly thankful for the amount of time and effort that so many people put in to develop our state plan,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release. “Colorado has had ambitious education strategies in place. This plan maintains our strong education laws while working together with the federal law to support all students.”

In a press release announcing approval for Colorado’s plan, U.S. Department of Education officials highlighted several features that other states don’t have. Those include a “one-stop process” for schools to apply for services and grants tailored for their specific challenges, a coordinated grant management system, and training for teachers in all subject areas.

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.