No easy answers

Cuts in state testing could have unintended consequences

Some testing critics have pushed for trimming Colorado’s K-12 tests back to only what’s required by the federal government, but making that move isn’t as simple as it sounds, the State Board of Education was told Wednesday.

While the overall impact wouldn’t be huge, reduction of testing could have ripple effects in the state’s system of rating districts and schools, causing some ratings to rise and other to drop.

For instance, the Boulder Valley schools would rise from “performance” to “distinction,” the highest level of the state accreditations system. But the Littleton schools would drop one level, to “performance.” And the Greeley district would drop one step from “improvement” to “priority improvement,” the second lowest level.

Overall, 11 districts would receive higher ratings and 28 would decline. Ninety-nine schools would get higher ratings while 97 would drop. (See the slides at the bottom of this article for the full list of theoretical district changes, plus information on how ratings for individual schools might shift.)

The conversation was prompted by the release of the 2014 TCAP results, which started a lively SBE discussion on testing at its August meeting (see story). Members asked Department of Education staff to return in September with more information on questions like what would happen if Colorado scaled back its testing system to only what is required by federal law.

Colorado imposes more tests on public school students than are required by federal law, which basically calls for language arts and math tests in 3rd through 8th grade, plus once between 10th and 12th grade. Science tests are required once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But Colorado requires additional tests in high school and three social studies tests during a student’s career, plus ACT tests for all high school juniors, school readiness and early literacy assessments or evaluations. (See this CDE document for a full comparison of state and federal requirements.)

Test results are fed into the complicated state calculations of student performance, academic growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates and graduation rates that are used to generate district and school ratings. So changing the test results could lead to ratings changes.

CDE staff used 2013 test results to do a simulation of how use of results from only federal requirements would affect accreditation ratings. (See these slides for CDE’s full presentation to the board.)

The exercise was a theoretical one, partly because the state testing system will change significantly next year, when the new PARCC tests in English language arts and math are given in all schools. And the workings of the accreditation system are due for review in 2016.

“It could look very different under the new CMAS system,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis. (CMAS is the acronym for the new system that is replacing the TCAPs.)

But even a simulation can be sensitive, given the importance district leaders place on their ratings. As a precaution, CDE emailed every superintendent earlier this week, informing them of the exercise and stressing that it was only a simulation.

“This was a simulation … this is not something we’ve said we’re doing,” stressed Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen.

But, he said, it was important to do the exercise because, “It took us a long time to get the system we currently have. … It needs to be a thoughtful discussion about moving pieces to make sure people don’t see unintended consequences.”

Owen also said the department has queried the U.S. Department of Education about another issue of testing concern – whether results from individual district tests could be used to meet federal requirements.

“We did not get the information” in time for Wednesday’s meeting, Owen said, promising to have details of DOE’s response for the board in October.

CDE Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski did have one piece of concrete testing news for the board. She said the department has determined it has sufficient funding to allow districts that choose to do so to give next year’s PARCC math tests on paper rather than online. It also will be possible for districts to give third graders both the math and language arts tests on paper if they choose.

Surveys done for the department earlier this year found some concerns about third graders taking online tests, and about online math tests because students in many schools do math work with pencils and paper. (Learn more about those survey results here.)

State board members are split on testing issues, and where they go from here is somewhat unclear. Members Wednesday mentioned possibly including recommendations in the board’s 2015 legislative priorities (which members will begin discussing next month) and making recommendations to the State Standards and Assessments Task Force, an appointed group that is studying the issue and which is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature in January.

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 holds a hearing on the bill Thursday.

“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.

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.”

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.