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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.”

ESSA Wrap up

Colorado bows to federal pressure, adopts second school quality system that penalizes schools for testing opt-out

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education members Angelika Schroeder and Steve Durham met with lawmakers to discuss the nation's new education law.

In an effort to keep federal dollars flowing to Colorado classrooms, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to create two quality systems for the state’s schools — the existing one designed in 2009 by state lawmakers, and a new one that meets federal requirements.

The unusual arrangement amounts to a compromise between the state education department and the U.S. Department of Education.

After Colorado became a national epicenter for the opt-out movement in 2015, the State Board of Education adopted a policy that forbid the state from lowering a school’s quality rating if they missed the 95 percent participation requirement.

That proved to be a sticking point when state officials submitted Colorado’s plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials sent the plan back, saying the opt-out provision didn’t comply with the new law.

In the compromise, the state will continue to issue state school quality ratings that don’t penalize schools for high opt-out rates.

However, the state will create a separate list of schools based on the federal requirement that students who opt out are counted as not proficient.

Some state board members worried two systems would create additional work for teachers, create confusion among the public or misidentify schools.

State officials said Wednesday, teachers, students and parents shouldn’t notice much difference. No school or district will be responsible for submitting more data. The state will be responsible for slicing and dicing results from annual tests as they have in the past.

Because Colorado students who opt out tend to be white and more affluent, this change could flag schools for financial support to boost learning that really don’t need it.

State education officials assured the board that it had discretion in identifying whether a school is truly low-performing or if its scores are deflated from low participation.

Earlier this fall, the state took a voluntary step toward the two-system approach when it published a list of schools that qualify for federal grants. The state adopted some, but not all of the federal requirements, when it created that list.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he hoped the state would not publicize the results from the federal identification system.

“It should not be given equal weight with the data that we find appropriate,” he said.

Durham also asked the state education department to remind schools that it is still illegal to penalize students who opt out of state tests. (It’s also against the law to incentivize students to skip the English and math exams.)

The state must resubmit its plan to the federal government by Oct. 23.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify how the state previously penalized schools for missing the 95 percent participation rate before the state board took action. 

diploma discussions

Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

For years, Indiana has been grappling with how to re-imagine high school diplomas. Today, educators made a seemingly simple suggestion to state officials: Condense Indiana’s four-diploma system down to just one.

“Indiana needs just one diploma,” said Richard Arkanoff, superintendent for Center Grove schools. “But it’s critically important that we provide students with many multiple pathways to get to that one diploma.”

In a community meeting Tuesday night at Noblesville East Middle School, Ken Folks, chief of government affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the department is also interested in looking at a single diploma with different “gradations” depending on student needs.

Arkanoff was one of several educators who addressed the graduation pathways committee, led by the Indiana State Board of Education. The group is charged by Indiana lawmakers with creating pathways that will help determine students’ readiness for life after high school.

Currently, Indiana students have a single graduation requirement outside of what’s needed to earn a diploma — passing end-of-course exams in math and English. But next school year, that changes. Instead, to graduate, students will need to complete the pathway, which will replace the two tests, and earn a diploma. It’s not yet clear what those pathways will look like.

Byron Ernest, a state board member and the chairman of the committee, urged members to stay focused on the pathways.

“The purpose of this panel is to create a new system for determining if a student is ready to graduate high school,” Ernest said, adding later that the committee is not responsible for revamping the state’s diploma structure.

Multiple previous efforts to redo diploma requirements have resulted in little action and several false starts. The main impetus behind this flurry of discussion is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which states that the general diploma can no longer count in the graduation rate Indiana must report to the federal government starting as early as 2018.

The general diploma is a pared-down option that only about 12 percent of Indiana students receive.

To many at the meeting, any conversation about graduation would naturally include diplomas, especially when there is so much urgency around the ESSA changes.

Because of the change, many schools across the state — as well as the state as a whole — would see graduation rates drop, a main factor in high schools’ A-F grades. If a school’s rate falls below 67 percent, the school could also be identified as needing extra support from the state. Folks said 275 Indiana high schools could face that reality going forward.

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, is one example. She said the ESSA change would have gotten her below or close to the two-thirds mark in 2016 and 2017.

“The news about Indiana’s diploma options and connections to ESSA hit Brown County very hard,” she said.

Indiana lawmakers both at the state and federal level wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking for some time to deal with change before consequences would take effect.

Mary Burton, director of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative, said a single diploma could also offer benefits for students with special needs, who disproportionately receive general diplomas.

“It’s clear to students that the general diploma is of lesser value,” Burton said. “How about one diploma with (extra certifications)? This option would allow for the rigor we expect from all of our students while respecting and valuing each student’s learning differences.”

According to 2015 data compiled by Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, 27 states offer multiple high school diploma options. A 2016 analysis from the Virginia Department of Education found that of the 10 states with the highest percentages of graduates going to college, most had moved from multiple diplomas to just one.

Indiana has convened numerous panels and spent scores of hours discussing diplomas and post-high school options for students, with very little action taken.

The discussion around graduation pathways is a variation on that theme. So far, what a pathway is and how it might be structured has not been clearly defined. Mainly, the meetings have brought together educators, community members and business leaders to have wide-ranging conversations about preparing kids for life after high school, whether that’s college, career, military or other options.

After today, the group has six more meetings scheduled through early November.