Colorado tells feds it needs more time to rethink opt-out policy

Students at Fairview High School in Boulder protested state tests in 2014. (Denver Post file photo)

Colorado is asking for more time to figure out how to meet federal requirements for giving students standardized tests while respecting the rights of parents who don’t want their children to take them.

In a letter Thursday, Commissioner Katy Anthes told the federal government that the state needs until October to reconsider how Colorado holds schools and districts accountable when they fail to meet federal requirements for student participation on state tests.

The federal education department earlier this month told state officials that Colorado’s approach of not penalizing schools that fall below the 95 percent participation threshold doesn’t align with the nation’s updated education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal pushback came as part of the department’s formal review of states’ education plans that detail how they will comply with the new law. Colorado was one of the first states to submit its plan.

The reviews are being watched for clues of how the federal department under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos interprets a law that was intended to shift more decision-making to states.

Colorado was required to by Thursday either submit new language in its federally required education plan or ask for an extension. Officials chose the latter.

“Because our board has a strong commitment to Colorado’s parental opt-out rights, it will need to carefully consider how best to address your concerns without designing a system that will be perceived by parents and educators as punitive,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in the letter. “We are optimistic that the various interests here can be addressed in a manner that complies with ESSA and is in the best interest of Colorado students, parents, and educators.”

Colorado’s response follows a trip by one state official to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue in person.

Alyssa Pearson, Colorado’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance, flew to the Capital Aug. 18 in an effort to better understand what changes the federal department is seeking from Colorado.

Pearson, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said the department made it clear: The first 5 percent of students at a school who do not take the test get a pass. However, any student who skips the tests beyond that line must be counted as non-proficient.

So if 10 percent of kids at a school opt out, the first 5 percent won’t count against a school. The remaining 5 percent must count as non-proficient, dragging down the school’s scores.

Pearson said federal officials will require Colorado to use this number it its school quality ratings. It can’t just be a number it submits to the U.S. education department and then ignores.

Schools and districts with large numbers of students who are labeled as non-proficient on state tests are likely to receive low quality ratings from the states. Schools that receive the lowest quality ratings for five years in a row are targeted for state intervention.

In Colorado, the largest volume of opt-outs involve mostly white and middle- and upper-class students at schools with traditionally high quality ratings.

“While we don’t know how the schools are performing today,” Pearson said, “historically schools with parental refusal rates have performed pretty well in the past.”

Before 2015 when the opt-out movement gained traction, nearly all Colorado schools met the federal testing requirement.

The prescribed changes to how Colorado calculates how many students are meeting proficiency could lead to more schools being identified as low-performing — even if they don’t need help.

“We raised that issue,” Pearson said. She added that federal officials recognized the dilemma and offered suggestions on how the state can separate schools with truly low academic performance and those with artificially deflated scores.

State officials will present a variety of options to the State Board of Education in September, Pearson said.

Those options include asking state lawmakers to rewrite the state’s school accountability system to fully comply with federal law, or running two accountability systems — one that follows state law and the other that follows federal law.

The board must sign off on any policy changes included in the state’s education plan. A decision is expected in October.

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.

moving on up

With Holcomb’s support, Indiana’s next education plan heads to Washington

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb address lawmakers and the public during his State of the State Address earlier this year. Today, he signed off on Indiana's ESSA plan.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has given his stamp of approval to Indiana’s next education plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick thanked Holcomb for his support:

Holcomb was required to weigh in on the plan, but his approval wasn’t necessary for it to move forward. If he disagreed with the changes proposed by McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education, he could have indicated that today.

So far, it seems that the state’s top education policymakers — Holcomb, McCormick and the Indiana State Board of Education — have reached some level of consensus on how to move forward.

The state has worked for months to revamp its accountability system and educational goals to align with ESSA, which Congress passed in 2015.

Although there are many similarities between this plan and the previous plan under the No Child Left Behind waiver, several changes affect state A-F grades. Going forward, they will factor in measures that recognize the progress of English-learners and measures not solely based on test scores, such as student attendance.

However, the new plan also alters the state’s graduation rate formula to match new federal requirements, a change that has a number of educators, policymakers and parents worried because it means students who earn a general diploma no longer count as graduates to the federal government.

You can read more about the specifics of the state plan in our ESSA explainer and see all of our ESSA coverage here.