The number of Colorado school districts on a state accountability watch list dropped this year, but eight school systems still face looming sanctions if they don’t improve soon.

And the path for those districts off the watch list will get trickier this year due to a change in the testing system that produces most of the data the state uses to rate schools. Without that standard measure, districts looking for a higher rating will be required to submit their own data to prove their improvement efforts have worked.

Seven school districts — including two small rural systems that had reached the end of the state’s school improvement timeline — moved off the watch list this year. The two rural districts, Vilas and Karval, narrowly missed state sanctions by shuttering their low-performing online schools.

Since 2009, the Colorado Department of Education has reviewed school district performances annually. The results are based on data from the state’s standardized exams, ACT scores, drop-out and graduation rates. School districts are classified in five categories, the highest being “accredited with distinction” and the lowest being “turnaround.”

School districts that land in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face a loss of accreditation.

Do your homework
• Find your school district’s accreditation
• Review CDE staff’s slideshow presentation

In total, eight districts are entering the final year of their timeline and face a loss of accreditation. They include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools, and Julesburg Schools.

Aurora Public Schools, the largest system on the accountability timeline, has two years to improve.

“District leaders are working closely with teachers and school leaders to continue to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps,” said Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent. “Our expectation is to make significant gains that move us out of priority improvement status.”

All of the school districts that are being monitored by the Colorado Department of Education serve large populations of poor and Latino students. But not all school districts that serve those populations are on the clock, state officials pointed out. They highlighted the Center Consolidated School District as a medium-size system that has improved student achievement. Center has a higher concentration of poverty than any other school district in the state. More than 90 percent of their students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices.

School districts being monitored
Aurora Public Schools, year 4
Adams County 14 (Commerce City), year 5
Ignacio 11, year 5
Julesburg, year 5
Aguilar, year 5
Montezuma Cortez, year 5
Pueblo City Schools, year 5
San Juan BOCES, year 1
Sheridan City Schools, year 5
Adams County 50 (Westminster), year 5

Because of the forthcoming data gap between the two assessments, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law this year that allowed the state to use this year’s accreditation ratings for tow years.

However, districts may submit additional data, such as internal assessments that are supposed to gauge student progress throughout the year, to the department to have their accreditation rating reconsidered. This year 19 districts submitted such a request; 16 were approved. Due to the gap, state officials are expecting a great number of requests next year.

“We have limited information,” said  Keith Owen, CDE’s deputy commissioner. “A request to reconsider is an opportunity for the school and district to help paint an accurate picture. It’s a great system that Colorado has that not every state utilizes across the country. None of this is perfect, but the whole goal of [accreditation] is to have public accountability with how schools are preforming.”

Overall, most of the state’s school districts should be commended for improving or maintaining student achievement levels despite a heavy burden to implement more laws and policies, like teacher evaluations, Owen said.

“There are a lot of districts doing hard work in the midsts of substantial transition across the state with laws passed, five, six, seven years ago,” Owen said in an interview. “The amount of pressure those laws put on districts — but that we’re still seeing districts making improvement over time, it sends a strong message about the kind of improvement going on in the state.”

The board asked department staff various questions regarding the accreditation process, flexibility around the law, and what they were doing to assist school districts that are at risk of losing their accreditation.

In a rare moment, Elaine Gantz Berman, a Denver Democrat, agreed with chairman Paul Lundeen, an Colorado Springs Republican, that the state should research and develop flexibilities for school districts that are performing well. Ideally, that would allow the department to target more of their efforts on low performing school districts, Gantz Berman said.

“I think there would be strong consensus from the board that it’d be great if you could focus your efforts on the school districts that need the most,” she said.