Meaning of measures

Passing schools, struggling students: Colorado reconsiders its formula for rating schools  

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora in 2014.

The vast majority of Colorado schools and districts get a passing score from state regulators who track their performance. Yet fewer than half of Colorado third-graders meet state expectations in literacy and just 34 percent meet state expectations in math.

This disconnect has members of the Colorado State Board of Education calling for a change in how much weight the state gives to certain factors in determining whether a school or district is doing its job or needs more oversight.

“Both of those things cannot be true,” board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said Wednesday. “You cannot characterize the student as not performing and the school as performing.”

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

Schools rated in the lowest two tiers – turnaround or priority improvement — go on the state’s performance watch or “on the clock.”  Such schools face state intervention, which can include closing or turning over management to a charter organization, if they don’t move into a higher tier after five years. So far, the state has shied away from drastic action and approved improvement plans brought forward by districts themselves, but that could change as some have not shown enough progress.

At the elementary and middle school level, 60 percent of a school’s rating is based on growth, a measure of how much progress students make compared to other, similarly situated students, while 40 percent is based on achievement, a measure of what students know. At the high school level, 40 percent of a school’s rating is based on growth, 30 percent on achievement and 30 percent on measures of postsecondary readiness.

Achievement on standardized tests is strongly correlated with students’ socioeconomic background, and many experts believe growth scores are a better reflection of whether schools are helping students learn. 

But there remains the troubling question of whether students are learning what they need to know in school, whether that’s third-graders having the literacy skills to carry them through the rest of their education or high school graduates being able to attend college without taking remedial courses.

“Is it time for us to put greater weight on achievement, since that is where we want to go?” asked Angelika Schroeder, the Boulder Democrat who chairs the state board. “We want to see growth, but achievement is what matters.”

The ratings formula ties into a long-running debate among testing experts. Groups like The Education Trust, which supports test-based accountability, argue that growth models water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency. Others argue that achievement data is too closely tied to poverty to be a meaningful measure of school performance.  

In Denver Public Schools, parents and civil rights groups have questioned how schools could be rated green based on growth rates when most students in those schools couldn’t read on grade level. The district continues to tweak its own school performance framework in response to criticism.

Some states also use a hybrid measure known as growth-to-standard that looks at how long it would take students to reach grade level if they continued to make progress at the same rate.

This measure comes in for some of the same criticism as achievement data.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability, told Chalkbeat last year.

Colorado’s school ratings used to include a growth-to-standard measure as a major component, but they haven’t taken it into account since 2015, when changes in assessments made year-over-year comparisons difficult.

Now that the assessments have stabilized and comparisons are more appropriate, the state will be adding growth-to-standard back in, as required by law. That provides an opportunity to revisit how much weight each factor in the school performance framework gets. A technical advisory panel will be studying the issue this fall and make recommendations to the state board.

One of the questions state board members want answered before they render a decision in early 2019 is how applying a standard that more heavily weights achievement would have affected school ratings and the possibility of state intervention.

Preliminary ratings based on 2018 test data placed 90 percent of Colorado school districts and 83 percent of schools in the higher tiers that essentially leave the schools free to do their work as they see fit.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: