Highs and lows

Some Colorado schools brace for state intervention, while others cheer their progress

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Two Colorado school districts and six individual schools failed to show enough improvement to raise their ratings under the state’s accountability system. Unless they successfully appeal their preliminary ratings this fall, they’ll remain on state-mandated improvement plans. Those include the 7,500-student Adams 14 district based in Commerce City, which is likely to face additional state intervention this school year, and Aurora Central High School.

And two new schools also face the potential for state intervention, Central Elementary School in Adams 14 and Minnequa Elementary in the Pueblo 60 district.

One school district and six individual schools that had previously faced state intervention improved enough to get off Colorado’s “accountability clock,” according to preliminary school ratings released Monday.

“Our students are working harder than they ever have, and it’s making a big difference,” said Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. In that district, two schools on state improvement plans and four others that had been placed on warning did well enough to get out of state scrutiny. “By every measure we use, we are seeing students move in the right direction. I am so proud of people locking arms and coming together to do that work.”

Colorado’s school accountability system rates districts based on achievement on state literacy, math, and science tests, on annual academic growth, and on postsecondary readiness as measured by graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on college entrance exams, and enrollment in college.

Schools go on performance watch or “on the clock” if their rating places them in one of the lowest two tiers – turnaround or priority improvement – and they face state intervention if they don’t move into a higher tier after five years.

The ratings released Monday are considered preliminary. Districts can request that the state reconsider districtwide or school ratings based on, for example, progress in literacy and math in the early grades or measures of high school achievement that don’t show up on state tests.

The deadline to file a request to reconsider is Oct. 15. The ratings will be finalized in December.

The State Board of Education has four options when deciding the future of schools whose performance remains in the two lowest tiers of the five-point scale for years on end. The board can close the school, hand it over to a charter management organization, contract with a third party to help run the school or create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and exemptions from district and state policy to improve student learning.

The options for districts are similar but include drastic and politically challenging steps like pushing for merger with a higher-performing district.

So far, the State Board has taken a collaborative approach and largely approved the plans that schools and districts brought forward. At the same time, state lawmakers, at the request of the Colorado Department of Education, approved changes to require schools to show more sustained improvement to get off performance watch and encourage schools to take action earlier in the process.

Colorado doesn’t have the option of state takeover that’s been exercised in places like New Jersey and Tennessee, with mixed results.

The next few years will serve as an ongoing test of how well this system of carrots and sticks works to help long-struggling districts.

“We are excited to see the progress made in some schools around the state to improve student performance, especially for some of those that have persistently struggled,” said Alyssa Pearson, the Colorado Department of Education’s deputy commissioner for accountability and performance, in an email. “These schools and their districts have had a laser-like focus on the needs of students. They have done this through two to three high-leverage priorities around data-driven instruction, leadership development, and culture to better meet the needs of all students. The specific actions vary, depending on the local context and need.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of the process working is the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. When Pilch arrived in 2015, 10 schools were on the accountability clock, and three of them ultimately required state-approved improvement plans: Prairie Heights Middle Schools, Franklin Middle School, and Martinez Elementary.

Franklin Middle School got off the clock last year, and with this round of ratings, Prairie Heights and Martinez Elementary were also freed from state supervision. Four additional Greeley-Evans schools came off performance watch this year without outside intervention.

Three Greeley-Evans schools, though, will be on the state’s watch list if their ratings don’t change in appeals.

Pilch said the district poured resources and support into the schools that needed to improve and took advantage of state grants for leadership training and other professional development. The district received extensive reviews of what was and wasn’t working within its schools from state evaluators and took those findings seriously in crafting improvement plans.

“The schools that are on priority improvement and turnaround, they’ve been our priority in terms of support and in terms of ensuring the right resources and the right leaders are in place,” Pilch said. “We’ve been very intentional about maintaining and training quality leaders at these schools. We’ve seen fewer leaders turn over.”

Also showing improvement was the Westminster district, which had one more year to make progress on its plan and is now off the clock. Officials there claimed vindication for the district’s competency-based learning model, in which students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content.

Results for Aurora schools, where district officials have been using new reforms to intervene in low-performing schools, have been mixed. The district as a whole improved enough to dodge state action last year. This year’s rating stayed at “improvement.”

The school with the most years of bad ratings, Aurora Central High School, failed to improve. The school is already on a state plan for improvement and has a year left to earn a higher rating before it would have to return to face the state again. Previously, state officials essentially blessed a district plan to continue rolling out interventions it was already trying, with extra help from an outside partner. If the school has to return to the state, officials could take more drastic action.

Three schools that had earned the lowest rating of turnaround last year — including Lyn Knoll Elementary — improved. Paris Elementary, which was facing state intervention this year if it didn’t raise it’s Priority Improvement rating, also managed a higher score, to avoid state sanctions.

If final school ratings remain the same, no other Aurora schools this year would be as close to state action. Three schools — Gateway High School, North Middle School and Virginia Court Elementary — would be entering year four, meaning they would have one year to show improvement before being at risk for state intervention.

“Aurora Public Schools continues to see gains and movement in the right direction,” district officials said in an emailed statement. “We have some great momentum that we will continue to build upon. While we recognize that we need to make more improvements at faster rates, we will dig into our data to plan how we will best leverage our strengths and address our challenges.”

District officials said the results from schools in what the district calls its Action Zone – schools that have individual plans for some flexibility from district rules – show the district has the right structure in place to keep improving. However, two schools in that zone, Aurora Central and Boston K-8, did not improve within the state framework and Boston actually earned a lower state rating this year, though it is not on the clock.

The tiny Sheridan district south of Denver, which got off the clock in 2014 after years of effort, was rated in the second-lowest tier, putting the district back on performance watch. Pat Sandos, the new superintendent there, said the news was a hard way to start his tenure, but it also brings a sense of urgency to improving student performance.

“We’re looking at the data really hard and breaking out the content areas,” he said. “We see opportunity for growth with [English-language learners]. It seems like that’s something that’s not just us, but for a lot of at-risk districts.

“Some of the work that we’re already doing is realigning and looking at the curriculum. We’re really focusing hard on that, on establishing a framework that gets teachers focused on what kids need to know at each grade level. And we’re paying a lot of attention to professional development.”

Other schools that got off the clock after facing state intervention include Hope Online Academy Middle School, authorized through the Douglas County school district, Manaugh Elementary School in the Cortez-Montezuma district in southwest Colorado, and Bessemer Elementary School in the Pueblo 60 district.

Two other Pueblo 60 schools still face state supervision: Risley International Academy of Innovation and Heroes Middle School. So does the little Aguilar district in southern Colorado, where the both the district and its joint junior-senior high school have struggled with years of low performance, and Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School.

The ratings will be finalized by December, and schools that have spent six years or more in turnaround or priority improvement status will face new or ongoing state intervention.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson. 

Data dive

Hardly any kids passed ISTEP at one of Indiana’s largest schools. Here’s why it’s not getting an F

Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing schools. But because too few of its students took the state exams — and those who did weren’t enrolled long enough — there is no clear picture of how well the school is educating them.

The virtual charter school, which opened in 2017, more than doubled in size to 6,232 students since last fall, in part because state data shows more than 1,700 students transferred from its troubled sister school, Indiana Virtual School.

But despite Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy’s rapid growth, the school is bypassing a key accountability measure that Indiana thinks is important for transparency: A-F grades, which were approved by the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Education department officials said the school did not get a grade, despite its high enrollment last year, because it did not test enough students who had been enrolled long enough to have one calculated. State grades are based primarily on student test scores, and virtual schools are known to struggle to get their remote students to sit for exams.

State test participation rate data shows IVPA tested about 19 percent of its 346 10th-graders in 2018 — about 65 students. To use test scores to calculate a school grade, the state requires that at least 40 test-takers must have attended the school for at least 162 days, a majority of the school year. But state officials said that while the school enrolled 48 10th-graders who met the attendance threshold during the testing period, only three of those students took the exams.

Federal requirements say schools must test at least 95 percent of students, and school grades can be affected if a school falls below that percentage. But there is currently no consequence for a school that doesn’t test enough students to get a letter grade.

The students who were tested at IVPA posted poor results: 5.7 percent passed both state English and math exams.

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and IVPA did not respond to requests for comment on A-F grades or testing participation, but the schools’ superintendent Percy Clark said in an emailed statement that students from varying education backgrounds select IVPA, and that the school was designed to serve students who are far behind their peers academically.

“Our students CHOOSE to come to Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy from many different backgrounds, and we accept everyone regardless of where they are on their academic journey,” Clark said.

Virtual charter school critics say IVPA’s lack of a letter grade is an example of how the schools are able to avoid scrutiny.

“It’s absolutely indefensible,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization that advocates for charter schools but has been a vocal critic of virtual charter schools. “When it comes to charter schools, the grand bargain is that the charter school gets increased autonomy, and in exchange, there is greater accountability. It’s hard to see where the accountability is for virtual schools right now.”

In contrast to IVPA, other large virtual schools in the state tested at least 90 percent of their students, and nearly every traditional school in Indiana met the federal threshold for testing students.

Indiana Virtual School, the subject of a Chalkbeat investigation that revealed questionable educational and spending practices, tested about two-thirds of its students in 2018. Students at the school, which received its third F grade from the state this week, did marginally better than at IVPA, but performed far below state averages: 18.6 percent of elementary and middle school students passed both tests, and 4.4 percent of high-schoolers did. State law says schools are up for state board of education intervention when they reach four consecutive F grades.

Brown, who used to work in the Indianapolis mayor’s office overseeing charter schools, said this is where charter school authorizers — the entities charged with monitoring the schools’ operations, finances, and academics — need to be involved. Daleville Public Schools, a small rural district near Muncie, oversees IVS and IVPA. State education leaders have previously questioned whether school districts have the capacity and expertise to oversee statewide charter schools. District leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was still an authorizer and one of our schools had less than a 20 percent rate of their students taking the ISTEP, we would be mortified, and we would be holding that school accountable with very clear measures,” Brown said. “In light of the tens of millions of dollars used to fund this school, there has to be at least a basic level of accountability, and right now, it’s hard to account for how that money is being spent because we just don’t know.”

With such high enrollment numbers, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy could together bring in upward of $35 million from the state for this school year, according to funding estimates from the Legislative Services Agency.

At the state’s other full-time virtual charter schools — including those billed as alternative schools like IVPA — state grades are rising as enrollment grows. Indiana Connections Academy is up to a D this year from an F, and Insight School of Indiana is up to a C from an F. For grades under Indiana’s federal plan, the schools received an F and D, respectively.

Indiana Connections Career Academy enrolled about 70 students last year and received no grade, but education department officials say that is because it had too few students to calculate one, despite testing more than 95 percent of them. It’s not uncommon for small schools — especially high schools that have just one tested grade — to not get a grade. This year, the school’s enrollment is up to about 300 students.

Virtual charter school accountability has become a hot issue in Indiana. Earlier this year, the state board of education convened a committee to study virtual charter schools, which have grown rapidly here in recent years. And last month, the committee released a series of recommendations, including slowing growth of new virtual charter schools to 15 percent per year — after a school hits 250 students — for their first four years.

Getting students who are located remotely to sit for state exams is a challenge for virtual schools. Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, said dogged work contacting and keeping up with students has made some of the difference for her school, both in students taking tests and improving on them.

“Our teachers are relentless in trying to engage with kids,” she said. “We are by no means where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do. But 8-point growth is something that we’re celebrating today.”

Melissa Brown said the school is also offering students who come in behind grade level more ways to make up their classes and incentives for them to stay at the school. For example, she said the school has a lot of over-age eighth-graders who should be in high school. Instead of just drilling their eighth-grade classes, they also have a chance to try out high school-level work — a taste of what’s to come, Brown said. So far, it’s working.

“We’re just trying to be really creative about helping kids progress,” she said.

At Insight, school director Elizabeth Lamey said she’s excited by how the high school has been able to help students show more growth on state tests. Currently, the school, which opened in 2016, is getting grades calculated only on how much students improve on state tests from one year to the next, not their proficiency or other measures such as graduation rate.

Lamey said improving the school’s curriculum and focusing on remediation and teacher training contributed to their progress and sets them up to continue that work.

“We hope to see even more growth this year,” Lamey said. “We know that it’s a rougher road, the older students get, to remediate. It takes more time, and we are slow and steady — we keep moving forward.”

Accountability issues will continue to be important for virtual charter schools as their enrollments grow.

Indiana’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll about 13,000 students. Although it appears that total virtual charter school enrollment in Indiana has declined since 2017-18, those figures include the closing of low-performing Hoosier Virtual Academy. The school enrolled 1,170 students when it closed in June, which was far lower than the 3,342 it was recorded as having at the beginning of that school year.

Comparing enrollment totals between fall of 2017 and fall of 2018, every virtual charter school currently open in the state saw enrollment rise, with the exception of Indiana Virtual School. Indiana Connections Academy and its sister school, Indiana Connections Career Academy, gained nearly 400 students between them. Insight is also up 45 students.

Virtual charter schools tend to have volatile enrollment patterns in part because of how easily students can enroll and withdraw — their families don’t have to move, and they can live anywhere in the state. Students moving between schools is not unique to virtual schools, but those schools do tend to see higher instances of mobility than traditional schools.

That means it can be hard to determine just how much virtual school enrollment has changed from one year to the next — enrollment numbers reported in the fall might fluctuate wildly through the rest of year.

Are Children Learning

These are the 7 schools IPS leaders are most worried about

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 48 is one of the campuses identified for a quality review.

Seven schools will be getting a closer look, and possible intervention, after Indianapolis Public Schools administration identified them as some of the lowest-performing schools in the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration announced this week the schools that were chosen for school quality reviews based on performance on the state ISTEP exam. This is the second year the district has initiated its own assessment of struggling schools, which will include district visits to the schools, and interviews with leaders, staff, and families.

The reviews are designed to help schools improve, district officials said. But campuses could also face the possibility of being restarted as innovation schools. If that happens, they would likely be taken over by outside charter or nonprofit operators, who would overhaul the schools with largely new staff. Schools can also be selected for restart based on repeated failing grades from the state.

One of the seven schools identified by the district last year was ultimately restarted as an innovation school. The other schools received different kinds of help such as working with schools to help teachers collaborate better, officials said.

“This is a clear example of our commitment to helping drive improvement at these schools where we see there’s a lack of improvement,” Ferebee said.

One sign that less drastic efforts helped is that only one campus, School 48, appeared on the list for the second year in a row.

“As a matter of fact, a few of the schools from last year had some of the highest growth that we saw in the district,” said Andrew Strope, the district’s performance and continuous improvement officer.

One wrinkle for the district is that three of the seven schools identified are already innovation schools. That raised concerns for board member Venita Moore.

“I was surprised to see these … innovation schools on the list,” Moore said. “But I think it does provide our community insight that we take seriously the quality of the education that our children are receiving.”

When innovation schools are created, the operators have contracts with Indianapolis Public Schools. Those agreements typically stipulate that the contracts can be ended if the schools receive D or F grades from the state for three or more consecutive years.

Ferebee cautioned, however, that restarting them again would create more upheaval. “Often times that creates instability that is not always helpful,” he said. “The goal, I just want to continue to reiterate, is to ensure we can help these schools improve their performance.”

These are the seven schools identified as having test scores in the bottom quarter and growth scores in the bottom half for the district.

  • Stephen Foster School 67
  • Eleanor Skillen School 34
  • Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15
  • Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder Diggs 42
  • Kindezi Academy at Joyce Kilmer 69
  • James Russell Lowell School 51
  • Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48