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.”


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.