disappearing act

Data privacy worries shield thousands of Colorado test scores from public scrutiny

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The public will never know how Smoky Hill High School ninth-graders scored last spring on English tests that challenged them to do things like interpret ancient Greek poetry.

Nor will it know how many fifth-graders at Monterey Community School in Commerce City grasp concepts like identifying a story’s main idea. Or whether sixth-graders at Ortega Middle School in Alamosa can puzzle out the complexities of algebraic equations.

Those results from last spring’s PARCC tests were among roughly 4,000 data points shielded from public view — the result of a new, more restrictive state policy designed to protect individual students from being identified. More than 1 in 4 data points from the math and English tests are not available for public inspection because of the year-old policy.

The move to redact more data from the state’s publicly available standardized test results is a dramatic shift for a state known for rich and easily accessible educational statistics. Inspired in part by the State Board of Education’s zeal for student privacy, the change has sparked a new debate pitting data transparency advocates against student privacy supporters.

“It’s really problematic that we don’t know how thousands of kids at large high schools are doing,” said Lisa Berdie, policy director for A Plus Colorado, a school reform advocacy group. “(These results aren’t) just for punitive accountability decisions. It’s so communities and students and families have a sense of how their schools are serving them and whether they meet grade-level requirements.”

Officials at the Colorado Department of Education stress that districts and schools are receiving complete data sets, and that parents will be provided with comprehensive reports explaining how their students and schools are performing.

The new rules, state officials acknowledge, are among the most stringent in the nation.

Department of Education officials and State Board of Education members say that the state remains committed to using data for accountability, and that the rules are designed to make it impossible for a member of the public to pinpoint how a particular student performed on state tests.

“The intent and the purpose of the rules are important to protect individual privacy and prevent the identification of individual students through the manipulation of the data,” said Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, the state board’s chairman. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s more important to protect those individual students than give the press something to write about.”

What do the new rules do?

Before 2015, when the new rules took effect, Colorado’s data rules were pretty simple. If fewer than 16 students at a school took any test — say, fourth-grade English — the state would not release the results.

The new rules say that if fewer than four students score at any one of the exam’s five proficiency levels, the state must redact results from that level and results from at least one other level. (If just the one were blacked out, doing simple math would allow someone to easily fill in the blanks).

Consider this example: Twenty fourth-graders at a school take a test and four place at Level 1, two place at Level 2, five place at Level 3, four place at Level 4 and five place at Level 5. The state would redact the results for Level 2 and one other level and report the rest.

In the last round of achievement results this month, the state didn’t release school-level results by individual proficiency level at all. Instead, it placed students in two broader categories — those who scored in levels 1, 2 and 3, and those who scored in 4 or 5, meaning they met or exceeded expectations.

Students at levels 4/5 were reported. If fewer than four students fell into that category, the scores were suppressed.

The state took an additional step that rubbed some schools the wrong way.

If a school’s results were withheld on any one test — and it is the only school in the district with redacted results on that test — the state took the additional step of also redacting the results on the same test from another school (the one with the fewest number of scores in the district).

The state believes this step is critical because it would be possible for someone to subtract the school’s student population from the district’s overall results to learn the school’s results.

That’s why Smoky Hill High School’s ninth-grade English scores were withheld this year. Because the results from the Cherry Creek School District’s alternative high school, Endeavor, were redacted, the state withheld the Smoky Hill scores because Smoky Hill had the fewest valid scores on the ninth-grade test.

Cherry Creek school officials are not happy about the new rules.

“A school that had more than 300 kids testing isn’t a school that should have any stars,” said Judy Skupa, the district’s assistant superintendent, referring to the typographical symbol the state uses when scores are redacted.

What’s the actual privacy threat?

According to federal law, the state must redact data that could allow any person using reasonable measures, such as basic subtraction, to figure out how a particular student performed on a test.

Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s chief assessment officer, explains it like this:

Imagine a neighborhood middle school had 100 sixth-graders take the state’s math test, and not a single one met the state’s expectations. Under the old rules, it would be very easy for folks on the block to know, at the least, the student next door did not pass the test.

That, Zurkowski said, would violate student privacy.

Here’s a slightly more complex example: Say a school had 17 boys and 10 girls take the third-grade math test. While the girls’ scores would be redacted under the old rules, their results could be determined through simple subtraction.

“You don’t get to know how your neighbor’s child performed,” she said. “We needed to do a better job of protecting that individual student’s data, that we hadn’t been doing historically.”

The Colorado Department of Education says it never received a complaint about privacy violations under the old, less restrictive system.

What’s the concern about transparency?

Advocates for more data are worried that the new rules will prohibit the public from knowing two things: which schools are doing poorly and which schools are doing exceptionally well, especially with traditionally underserved populations.

“That’s information we need to know,” said Luke Ragland, vice president of policy for Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit group that advocates for school reform on behalf of the business community.

Advocates lay out another scenario: you could have a school where most students aced the exam, but that data could be withheld if too few students placed in the lower categories.

That’s what happened at West Ridge Academy in Greeley, as the Greeley Tribune reported.

“We’re not just hiding schools that are underperforming,” said Berdie, of A Plus Colorado. “We’re also hiding success stories.”

An even greater fear is that as the state breaks students into subgroups — students of color, students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, students with special needs — the data will increasingly be redacted because not enough students are scoring in each category.

Starting in 2017, states will be required to break down student performance data into even more subgroups to include students of military families and those who are homeless.

Elena Diaz-Bilello, associate director of the Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation at the University of Colorado Boulder, said it will be increasingly difficult to draw any conclusions from state test score results if so much data is held back from the public.

“I don’t think the state thought through all the implications,” she said.

Where does the state go from here?

Many advocates in the education reform community are hoping the state softens the rules.

“My biggest fear would be that in the privacy environment we’re in right now, we’d swing so far in one direction and no longer have an opportunity to recalibrate,” said Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

For the moment, the new rules only apply to state standardized tests given in grades three through nine, Zurkowski said. Other important measures that go into a school’s quality rating are not affected — including the SAT, graduation rates and growth data that show much students learn year to year.

The rules are not explicitly required by any law — not even Colorado’s landmark student privacy law passed earlier this year. Zurkowski said the policy is influenced by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

That leaves room for the rules to shift, which Zurkowski said is a possibility.

“It’s an ongoing conversation,” Zurkowski said. “I”m not saying we hit this right. I know we haven’t hit this right. And these rules will continue to evolve. In the end, we got to balance transparency and privacy.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Facilities

These 102 schools failed latest round of ‘blitz inspections’

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of 102 schools that will have to be reinspected.

Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that 102 schools will require reinspection for cleanliness before students return to class in the fall. The district has been conducting “blitz inspections” at schools to help address widespread concerns about filthy conditions, including rats and rodent droppings.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the year that complaints of a rodent infestation at a South Side elementary school had spurred an initial round of investigations, and that 91 of 125 schools failed them. The story brought citywide attention to the issue and raised questions about CPS’ decision to transition the work of keeping schools clean to two private contractors: Aramark, which is based in Philadelphia, and SodexoMAGIC, which is a joint venture between the French company Sodexo Inc. and Beverly Hills, California,-based Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Since 2014, the district has spent more than $400 million on contracts with the two companies.

CPS said in a statement Tuesday that it is “committed to carrying out a multi-pronged plan” that includes adding 200 additional custodians who are deep cleaning schools this summer. Of those, 100 custodians will remain with the district once the new school year begins. A district spokeswoman said monthly inspections will continue and that a “stronger facilities services structure” that employs one building manager to oversee janitorial and engineering services at each school will yield better results.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the additional custodians do little to make up for the mess. “(Mayor Rahm) Emanuel made a token commitment to increase full-time custodial staff by 100 next fall—about a tenth of the staff that was cut when (he) moved to privatize janitorial and facilities management services for CPS, and a fraction of what’s needed,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Schools that have not yet passed an inspection have received orders for actions, structures, and timelines for improvement, the district said. CPS does not inspect charter, contract, alternative, or options schools that operate outside of district-managed facilities.

Here’s a list of the schools that require reinspection.

ADDAMS
ALCOTT ES
ALDRIDGE
ASHBURN
AZUELA
BARTON
BELMONT-CRAGIN
BENNETT
CAMERON
CANTY
CARDENAS
CARROLL-ROSENWALD
CASTELLANOS
CHICAGO AGRICULTURE HS
CLINTON
COOK
COONLEY
CORLISS HS
CURTIS
DAVIS M
DUBOIS
DUNNE
DURKIN PARK
EARHART
EARLE
ELLINGTON
ERICSON
FAIRFIELD
FORT DEARBORN
FOSTER PARK
FRAZIER PROSPECTIVE
GALLISTEL
GARVY
GOETHE
HALEY
HARVARD
HAUGAN
HEARST
HEFFERAN
HOLMES
HOPE HS
HOPE INSTITUTE
HURLEY
IRVING
JACKSON M
JOPLIN
JORDAN
KENNEDY HS
KERSHAW
KIPLING
LANE TECH HS
LANGFORD
LAVIZZO
Lee Elementary
MARSHALL HS
MASON
MAYS
MCDOWELL
MCKAY
MORGAN PARK HS
MORRILL
MULTICULTURAL HS
NOBLE – COMER
NORTHSIDE LEARNING HS
NORTHSIDE PREP HS
NORTHWEST
OGLESBY
OTIS
OWENS
PARKER
PARKSIDE
PENN
PETERSON
POE
PRITZKER
PULLMAN
REVERE
RICKOVER MILITARY HS
RUDOLPH
RUGGLES
SCAMMON
SKINNER West
SMITH
SOUTH SHORE ES
SOUTH SHORE INTL HS
SPRY ES
SULLIVAN HS
SUTHERLAND
TAFT HS
TARKINGTON
TAYLOR
TELPOCHCALLI
THORP J
URBAN PREP – WEST HS
VOLTA
WASHINGTON H ES
WASHINGTON HS
WEBSTER
WELLS ES
WESTINGHOUSE HS
WHITNEY
WILDWOOD