Future of Schools

Indiana delays release of A to F school grades

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana State Board of Education members shelved today’s planned release of A to F grades for all Indiana schools after a sharp debate which included criticism of whether state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her lieutenants properly screened the data for errors.

A mistake in the data that was brought to light at the state board meeting affected about five of more than 2,100 schools, but board members decided they wanted an outside review to double check the grades before approving them and making them public.

The schools in question might have lost credit toward their grades because of a mistake by a company that administers International Baccalaureate tests that high school students take when they finish advanced classes, state officials said. Indiana Department of Education staff said they discovered late in the grading process that the company had accidentally failed to submit results for Indiana students at about five schools but told the board the error would be fixed.

High schools get extra credit toward their grades when students successfully complete advanced classes. Representatives for Carmel’s Guerin Catholic High School said they were given a zero on that measure and the school’s appeal was denied. Education department officials said today that they were in the process of correcting that error, which could change the grade for Guerin and a handful of others. They suggested the board approve the rest of the A to F grades and vote separately to assign grades to the affected schools next month.

But state board members said they wanted the rest of the grades checked by the Legislative Service Agency to assure they were correct. That meant schools weren’t able to publicly release their school grades today as planned.

“The department has the incredible task of calculating (grades) and the board has the statutory duty to make sure they are right until we release them,” Brad Oliver said.

Ritz said minor data errors occurred every year and urged the board to follow the education department’s recommendation to go ahead with the release of grades. But later, she voted with the majority to table the grades until the next meeting on Nov. 5. Only Gordon Hendry voted no on Brad Oliver’s motion, which passed 7-1.

Ritz said she was willing all along to submit the data for an outside evaluation, and that’s why she voted in favor of Oliver’s motion. In fact, she said, the department already shared the data with Legislative Service Agency for double checking.

“I’ve been a proponent of making sure that happens,” she said.

The debate recalled last year’s battle between Ritz and the rest of the board over delaying the release of A to F grades, but this time the board and the education department took opposite positions from where they stood in 2013.

Last year, board members grew frustrated when grades were not released by mid-October and sought to circumvent Ritz to release the grades over her objections. Last Oct. 16 — almost a year ago to the day — board members sent a letter to legislative leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Service Agency, which provides data and other supports to state lawmakers, to calculate the grades. Ritz responded with a lawsuit, later dismissed, arguing the board violated state open meetings law by deciding to send the letter outside of a public meeting.

Last year, Ritz said glitches that occurred when students took the state ISTEP test online slowed the education department’s work to prepare the grades, but other state board members believed she was dragging her feet. After an acrimonious month of tense board meetings, the grades were rechecked by LSA and finally issued this past December.

This time, it was the education department arguing there was no need to delay the release and the board members asking to hold off so LSA again could check its work. Board members directed criticism at Ritz and her team for not ensuring that check was done before the board vote was scheduled.

“Somehow a lack of leadership a lack of attention to detail places us in a really bad position because school superintendents and schools are looking for this info today, and you have not provided some of the key ingredients to us to making a complete decision,” board member David Freitas said.

Board member Andrea Neal said she was surprised department officials did not catch the error with International Baccalaureate results before local school officials noticed problems and did not move more quickly to investigate.

“If they hadn’t caught it, we’d release the wrong grades for other schools,” she said. “It makes sense to take a step back, make sure all grades have been properly given that once over, and it’s a matter of a couple of weeks, so what’s the harm?”

Ritz, however countered the data-checking process worked just as it was supposed to. Each year, she said, a small number of errors are found among the large amounts of data that make up the system, usually when schools notice something out of the ordinary.

“That’s the whole process of the appeal,” she said. “We give over a month for people to appeal so that we can make sure all the data is correct. All the schools are involved.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”