Round 2

UPDATED: State Board delays action on testing waivers

Updated at noon to include information about a new motion to eliminate penalties to districts with low testing participation rates.

The State Board of Education voted 5-1 Wednesday to delay action on testing waiver requests it has received from 20 districts. The board also voted to end penalties for districts whose test participation rates fall below required levels because of parents opting out.

The practical effect of the first vote is that those districts will have no legal justification not to give tests as scheduled in March. The motion specified that the board will reconsider the waiver issue at either its next regular meeting in March, or a special meeting if members decide to call one.

Today’s delay keeps alive controversy and the confusion kicked off when the board voted 4-3 in January to allow districts to seek waivers from the first part of the state’s new language arts and math tests, due to be given next month.

That January motion, made by new Republican member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, directed education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers that applied for such exemptions. The motion passed despite cautions from Hammond and Department of Education staff that the two portions of the tests can’t be separated.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl also told the board in January it didn’t have the authority to grant waivers. Hammond said then he wouldn’t issue waivers until he’d received formal advice from the attorney general’s office. That advice came last week, when Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued her formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the department have the legal authority to grant testing waivers. Such an opinion has the force of law, unlike Dyl’s informal advice.

Second resolution adds more complications

The board also created a new element of uncertainty Wednesday by passing a separate motion that seeks to exempt districts from any penalty if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in testing this spring because of parents opting out. The vote was 4-2.

As with the board’s original waiver vote in January, the vote’s legal effect is unclear. “This motion probably would violate the terms” in the state’s accountability agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, said Dyl.

“That does cause us a problem with the feds,” said Hammond, an issue that could “force me to ask for another opinion from the attorney general’s office.”

The federal NCLB law requires that all students in specified grades undergo annual testing in language arts and math. The federal government requires 95 percent participation and requires states to impose penalties on districts that fail to meet that threshold in two or more tests.

Colorado’s current penalty is a reduction in accreditation ratings for districts that don’t comply.

Explaining what would happen in light of the board vote, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said, “You’d have to submit an amendment to the feds … negotiate that amendment and see if they would approve it.” A possible amendment would propose a different penalty than loss of accreditation status.

Board members Durham and Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver argued for the motion. “We can’t hold districts liable for what parents want,” said Flores, hinting at the possibility of increased numbers of parents opting students out of tests this spring.

Durham argued that eliminating the current penalty is needed “so that pressure on parents hopefully will be eliminated.” He alleged that some districts and administrators put inappropriate pressure on parents to have students take tests.

The board’s one-hour discussion of testing waivers and the participation penalty was marked by some confusion.

Durham originally included the two ideas in a single motion. But chair Marcia Neal objected to that, as well as to voting on a motion that wasn’t available to members in writing.

Neal, participating by phone from Grand Junction because of a medical issue, was in and out of the conversation and didn’t participate in the two votes.

The discussion was marked by some tension, particularly between Durham and members of the attorney general’s staff.

At one point, after not getting the answer he wanted, Durham said to Dyl, “I’ll try one more time. It’s a yes or no question.”

Durham also complained that Colorado has become “bogged down in a regimen of testing” and criticized the attorney general’s office for not laying out a strategy for dealing with federal requirements.

He also scoffed at concerns that Colorado would lose federal education funding if it violates various requirements.

“I’ve yet to see” the federal government pull funding in such cases, he said.

Board is one voice in larger testing debate

The board’s January action was part of a broader backlash against state standardized testing that has united groups ranging from the Colorado Education Association to suburban parent activists to legislators from both parties.

There’s been rising concern about the amount of testing, particularly after 11th grade language arts and math tests were added, along with science and social studies tests for high school seniors.

Many teachers and administrators complain the new state school readiness and early-literacy assessments consume too much classroom time, and that giving this spring’s tests online will cut instruction time as students are shuttled back and forth to school computer labs to take tests.

And conservative critics object to the fact that the new tests are based on the Common Core State Standards, which they see as an infringement on state and local control of education.

Six testing bills already have been introduced in the 2015 legislative session. They range from a fairly simple reduction in testing to wide-ranging measures that propose to reduce testing and withdraw from the Common Core and the PARCC testing group.

Lawmakers face the same problem as the state board – current federal requirements leave states with limited options to reduce testing beyond a certain level or to give districts assessment flexibility.

The full legislative testing debate isn’t expected to develop until next month, but it’s widely assumed at the Capitol that lawmakers will approve some reduction in the amount of testing.

This spring’s tests

Here’s the rundown on the testing schools and students face this spring.

The first window – Districts can start giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades 3-11 on March 2. The so-called “testing window” remains open until April 3. An individual district has four weeks within which to schedule tests to accommodate computer availability and other needs.

The first part – The initial section of the language arts and math tests emphasize essay questions and other “constructed response” items that take longer to score. That’s why they’re given earlier.

The second window – Districts may test between April 20 and May 22.

The second part – Called “end of year” assessments, these tests are intended to assess student knowledge of what they’ve learned through the year and are mostly multiple-choice items that can be scored quickly. The ultimate goal of the new tests is to have results available before the school year ends, but that won’t happen this year.

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to 4th and 7th graders, and 8th graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28.

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for 3rd grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring.

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9 ¾ hours for 3rd graders, 10 hours in grades 4-5, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school.

Who wanted a waiver

As of Wednesday, 20 districts had applied for waivers. Most are small, but the list includes two larger suburban systems: Douglas and Jefferson counties. Many smaller districts used a sample resolution that had been circulated by the Rural Alliance, a group that advocates for the interests of small districts. Most districts asked for exemption from the first set of tests, but a few asked for broader waivers. They enroll more than 174,000 students, nearly 20 percent of the 889,006 students statewide.

Buffalo, Byers, Dolores, Dougco, Eaton, Elizabeth, Haxtun, Hayden, Jeffco, Julesburg, Kit Carson, Lone Star, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Weld RE-7 (Platte Valley), Weld RE-9 (Ault), Weld RE-10J (Briggsdale), Weldon, Wiggins and Wiley.

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.