ratings and consequences

Five low-performing Colorado school districts on track for sanctions after state releases quality ratings

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Five Colorado school districts face the unprecedented prospect of state sanctions and three were spared that fate according to final state school district quality ratings released Thursday.

The ratings from the Colorado Department of Education are the first since the state made a switch in assessments designed to measure student learning in English and math. The ratings are also the first to be released since a growing number of families began opting their children out of the tests, driving down many districts’ participation rates and complicating state officials’ efforts to rate them.

The five districts that failed to improve student learning enough during the last six years and now face state action are a mix of suburban and rural: Westminster Public Schools, Adams 14 School District, Aguilar Reorganized, Montezuma-Cortez and Julesburg RE-1.

Those districts have one more chance to appeal to the State Board of Education for a higher rating, which could halt the sanction process. Such an appeal has never been granted.

The sanctions could come as soon as February. Among the state board’s options for the five school districts: close schools, turn some over to a charter authorizer, or direct the district to reorganize and turn over some operations such as teacher training to a third party.

Both Adams 14 and Westminster asked for the state to reconsider their ratings before finalizing them. But both those bids fell short. State officials concluded that Adams 14 neither improved enough nor provided sufficient data, and district officials say they will not appeal.

In Westminster’s case, the state said the district could claim some promising data but not enough to lift its rating. District officials also contended the state accountability system doesn’t adequately take into account the way it groups students not by age but by what they know. District officials told Chalkbeat they plan to appeal.

The three districts that beat the state’s so-called “accountability clock” and escaped sanctions were Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and Ignacio. The three districts learned they had made enough improvement earlier this fall, and the final ratings make it official.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the state’s districts were awarded one of the state’s top two ratings. Another five districts ranked in the bottom two.

More than half of the state’s 184 school districts and other agencies that get ratings — including the Charter School Institute, the state’s charter school authorizer — have similar ratings compared to 2014, when the ratings were last issued. Forty districts saw a rating increase, while 33 districts dropped at least one level.

Meanwhile, 13 mostly small rural districts effectively have no rating because too few students in those districts took the state’s tests.

The ratings come almost four months since the state released the second round of results from PARCC exams.

The ratings rely heavily on results from the PARCC English and math tests students in grades three through nine take each spring. Other factors that contribute to a district’s rating include how well high school juniors scored on the ACT and how many students graduate or drop out.

Under the system, which was created by the General Assembly in 2009, districts that fall in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face sanctions. This year marks the first year the State Board of Education must take action on districts that have crossed that threshold.

In the past, the department has issued districts one of five ratings: “distinction” being the highest and “turnaround” being the lowest. This year, in response to the state’s growing movement of parents opting their students out of state standardized tests, the department developed a sixth rating: “insufficient state data, low participation.”

The department is also clearly labeling districts that had enough data to get ranked but fewer than 95 percent of students take the PARCC exams.

State and federal law require schools to test 95 percent of their students in an effort to ensure schools don’t exclude groups of students such as English language learners or students with special needs.

However, state lawmakers, reacting to pressure from parents and activists, tweaked the law in 2015: Students who are excused from the tests aren’t counted as either participants or nonparticipants. As a result, the state changed the way it calculates a district’s participation rate so districts are only held responsible for testing students who are not excused by their parents.

The resistance to standardized testing and the changes to the law “created some interesting situations,” said Alyssa Pearson, the department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

“We need direction from policy makers,” Pearson said, noting the state’s rating system was created in 2009, a time when nearly every student took the state’s standardized tests. “This year, we did what made sense to us.”

When the state released its preliminary ratings earlier this fall, dozens of districts had their ratings lowered manually by the department because they failed to meet the 95 percent participation rate and did not provide evidence that parents had pulled their kids from testing.

The department received a record number of requests from districts to up their ratings. Mosts of those requests were granted because data coding errors led to a lower preliminary rating.

Ultimately, three districts had a rating lowered due to low participation — the first time the state has made such a move. Another 89 districts did not have their ratings lowered but were flagged for low participation.

One of those districts that was flagged for low participation was Boulder Valley, which had a “distinction” rating in 2014 but earned an “accredited with low participation” rating this year. An epicenter for the opt-out movement, Boulder had not a single grade meet the 95 percent participation requirement.

Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent, said the district’s performance is not being accurately captured because so many students opted out.

“I’m not pleased that accreditation would be impacted by the participation rate,” said Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent. “We have a conflict in the state of Colorado over the relationship between accreditation and participation. That needs to be resolved, and I’m sure it will be over time.”

“We have no reason to believe the performance on the test, on those that were reported, reflect our school district,” he added. “Statistically there is no way anyone could jump to that conclusion.”

The state’s third largest school district and another opt-out hotbed, the Douglas County School District, also saw its rating drop since 2014 and was flagged for low participation. However, leaders there seem unfazed.

“We recognize the impact that low participation rates in state-mandated assessments have on accreditation ratings,” Interim Superintendent Erin Kane said in a statement. “However, we honor parental choice and will continue to do so.”

The state is expected to release school ratings at the state board’s January meeting.

down ballot

A guide to the critical education race you’ve never heard of

The Democratic and Republican candidates for the Michigan Board of Education (from right), Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone. Seven candidates from other parties are running.

It’s no secret that school closures are on the ballot in Michigan this November, with candidates for the state’s highest office taking different positions of that hot-button issue. But the gubernatorial race isn’t the only one on the ballot with sweeping implications for the state’s schools.

The race for the Michigan Board of Education will appear at the bottom of the ballot, but the winners stand to make a major impact on the lives of thousands of students. They will help shape state policy on issues like school closures, social studies standards, and the level of reading skill below which students will have to repeat the third grade.

The board was added to Michigan’s constitution when the state’s founding document was rewritten in 1963. It was designed to keep day-to-day politics out of the staid world of education policy, with each member of the eight-person panel insulated from electoral challenges by a lengthy eight-year term.

Much of its power lies in the single task of hiring a state superintendent, who will likely play a major role in deciding whether to close low-performing schools, not to mention in setting the standards for attendance and academic performance that could be used to close them.

That position is currently vacant, and the education department has said it won’t be filled until next year. That means whoever is elected to fill the board’s two open seats will play a crucial role in picking Michigan’s top education official.

The selection of the superintendent “is the single most important decision for the next year,” said Judy Pritchett, a Democrat and former chief academic officer at the Macomb County Intermediate School District who is among the 11 candidates running for a seat on the board.

Controversy over school closings exploded last year, when Gov. Rick Snyder used an executive order to assume control of the office responsible for closing schools from the state superintendent and ordered the office to close 38 low-performing schools, most of them in Detroit. The move prompted a public outcry, and Detroit’s main district sued to stop the closures. Snyder backed away from the plan, eventually handing the power to close schools back to Brian Whiston, then the state superintendent, who took the threat of closures off the table at least temporarily.

But Whiston’s death in May reopened the issue, leaving the future of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools in the hands of the person selected to replace him.

Snyder’s short-lived takeover of an office previously overseen by the board was just the latest sign that the board’s power has waned in recent years. For most of its history, the board’s recommendations on the state budget and learning standards were heeded by the legislature, says John Austin, a former board president who lost a re-election bid in 2016.

In recent years, however, politicians have become more willing to wade into education issues, and the legislature has increasingly ignored the board’s advice, making clear the limits of its power, Austin said.

The board “has few direct controls over policy,” said Austin. “It’s mainly policy recommendations and exhortations.”

The board’s scope is still too broad for some. The new state superintendent — and by extension the board — are responsible for technical decisions about state policy that will have enormous implications for students across the state. For instance, the superintendent would have the power to decide what it means for a third-grader to read on grade level, which will determine the number of third-graders held back under Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law when it goes into effect in the  2019-2020 school year. The law, which Democrats have pledged to alter if they gain power in November, requires that third-graders be held back if they can’t read on grade level.

The state superintendent is also responsible for creating measures of student growth and chronic absenteeism, which would likely factor into a statewide A-F grading system for schools if the legislature succeeds in creating one.

What’s more, the board itself is tasked with approving state learning standards, giving them the final say in an ongoing controversy over an attempt by conservative lawmakers to remove references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and climate change from state social studies standards. The standards serve as a guide to local districts when they adopt new curriculum.

An education commission assembled by Snyder proposed that members of the board be appointed by the governor. Lawmakers followed up on the proposal, making attempts in recent years to eliminate the board and allow the governor to directly appoint the state superintendent, but those proposals have failed to win the votes they’d need to amend the constitution.

Speaking Wednesday night before a few dozen education officials in Lansing during a candidate forum, live-streamed online, the four major-party candidates insisted that they would honor the board’s history of remaining above the political fray. (Watch video of the forum here).

The Democratic and Republican candidates for Clockwise from top left: Richard Zeile, Tiffany Tilley, Judy Pritchett, and Tami Carlone.

Tami Carlone, an accountant and Republican education advocate who wrote a bill that would have forbidden Michigan schools from using the learning standards known as the Common Core, said: “politics is a huge part of the problem in education.”

Yet the candidates laid out starkly different visions for the future of Michigan’s schools.

Richard Zeile, a one-term Republican incumbent from Detroit who has spent his career running private Christian schools, said he has pushed to shutter struggling schools.

“I felt that most of them should have been closed,” he said.

Carlone, whose website promises to “hold people accountable for the failures, or our schools will never be excellent.”

By contrast, Pritchett and Tiffany Tilley, a former political director of the Democratic party in the 14th congressional district in the Detroit area, said they oppose school closures.

All four candidates insisted that experience is the main quality they are looking for in a potential superintendent, but Carlone made clear that she would also look for “someone who would push the goals in my platform.”

As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the candidates are posting their platforms online and attending forums where they explain their views. But they understand that because few voters know their names, the race will likely be determined at the top of the ticket. The benefits of a strong election for either party will likely trickle down to the members of that party in the school board race.

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.