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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.