Future of Schools

Christel House Academy's grade falls from A to F

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy, the charter school that earned an A in 2012 only after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s lieutenants made changes to the grading formula, was given an F on Friday for 2013.

But officials from the school, which some accused of receiving special treatment last year, said it’s this year’s F grade that they can prove is unfair. Their appeal, which was denied, should have resulted in a grade change, school officials said.

In fact, Christel House’s CEO Carey Dahncke said the school’s grade called into question new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s assertion that testing errors last May had minimal effect on student scores or school grades. Dahncke said the school’s own analysis showed 90 percent of Christel House students who passed state tests last year but failed this year were also among those who were kicked offline during testing.

“That was the common element,” he said. “It is due to the testing disruptions.”

After months of problems, the Indiana State Board of Education Friday issued A to F grades for all schools more than seven weeks later than last year. The delay had become a point of contention between Ritz and the state board, escalating political tensions that had been building over questions of who guides education policy in Indiana.

But the protracted discussion and internal vetting of ISTEP test results and the new grades did not erase questions about whether the grades are valid.

In May, about 80,000 of the roughly 500,000 students who took ISTEP experienced problems taking the test online. In some cases, the test froze or response time lagged. Some students had to repeatedly log back in.

Over the summer the state hired an outside evaluator to verify the validity of the scores. His report found just 1,400 student tests were invalid, causing virtually no impact on school and district results, state officials said.

Still, it’s not just Christel House that is concerned that their grades were impacted by the testing problems, despite the education department’s assurances.

“That was a pretty widespread thought,” said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Whether that manifested itself into actual grade changes. That’s a good question.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said all appeals were carefully considered, including Christel House.

“They went through the exact same process as every other school,” he said.

But Christel House, which has earned A grades since 2006, saw 40 percent of its 679 test takers affected by glitches, school officials said. At several grade levels, it was those same kids who failed the test and contributed to a slide in the school’s passing rates.

Last year 81 percent of Christel House students passed both English and math on ISTEP, about 10 points above the state average. This year, the passing rate for the school dropped to 71 percent.

Some examples from Christel House’s internal review:

  • Last year 95 percent of third graders passed the state’s third grade reading test. In fourth grade this year, just 61 percent passed the English test. All of the 15 students who passed at third grade but failed in fourth grade had a testing disruption.
  • In seventh grade, the passing rate in math fell to 55 percent passing from 91 percent the prior year, when the students were in sixth grade. Again, all 19 students who went from passing to failing faced testing problems.
  • At eighth grade, all eight students who failed in 2013 but passed the prior year experienced ISTEP glitches.

“You’d have to be teaching kids the wrong thing to have that many kids go from passing to failing,” Dahncke said. “None of it adds up.”

So much of Christel House’s test data appeared to be affected by ISTEP problems that it appealed its F grade and asked instead to be given no grade for this year, Dahncke said.

“You can’t calculate a grade with all this bad data,” he said.

Christel House was among about 150 schools that appealed their grades. At Friday’s state board meeting, education department staff said no schools who appealed their grades based on concerns about ISTEP testing problems were approved for a grade change.

The school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a stormy debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula to help Christel House maintain its A.

News reports last summer revealed emails from the fall of 2012, obtained through public records request, in which Bennett’s staff fretted that Christel House might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations,. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants.

 

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.