After a months-long effort, the Sheridan school district has failed in its bid to improve its state accreditation rating.

The State Board of Education voted 5-2 Wednesday to reject the district’s request to change its 2015 rating of “priority improvement” to “improvement.”

The district had argued that the change was warranted because it should be permitted to exclude the performance of its alternative high school from the district’s overall rating. But Department of Education officials who analyzed Sheridan’s bid concluded Sheridan didn’t meet the requirements for excluding results from the alternative school.

The district’s ratings are about more than bragging rights. State law makes districts subject to state intervention if they’ve been in the two lowest of the five rating categories for five consecutive years. Those classifications are priority improvement and turnaround. Sheridan is in that situation but is not in immediate danger of state action because the accreditation clock is stopped for this school year.

Sheridan is one of the metro area’s smallest districts, with 1,536 students, and it’s also one of the poorest. Superintendent Michael Clough told the board that 85 percent of the district’s students are minorities, more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, and 25 percent are homeless.

Clough and leaders of some similar districts feel the state’s rating system unfairly penalizes them and doesn’t fully recognize the growth such districts are making. The Mapleton school district, which also has high rates of poverty and low achievement, lost a similar ratings appeal in 2013.

“Nobody likes a mark on their community. I don’t feel it [the rating] is an accurate reflection on our community,” Clough said.

The superintendent found a sympathizer in Democratic board member Val Flores of Denver, who said the accountability system punishes “districts that have a large percentage of minority students. … It just isn’t fair when know the state just isn’t providing the resources.”

Sheridan argued that its three regular schools are each rated more highly than the district as a whole and that the district would move up on the rating scale if performance of its alternative campus, SOAR Academy, were removed from calculation of the district rating. State law allows that, but only under certain conditions.

Alternative education campuses serve high school and older students who meet certain risk factors, such as being dropouts and being far behind grade level. There are about 80 such schools around the state.

The district and education department staff disagreed over the improvement data provided by Sheridan for the district and for SOAR.

“They really are starting to see some improvement,” said Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner. “Unfortunately when we saw the data it just didn’t merit reconsideration.”

The board was persuaded by its staff and voted 5-2 to reject Sheridan’s appeal, Flores and Republican member Debora Scheffel of Parker voted no.

See a summary of Sheridan’s case here and CDE’s reasoning here.

Colorado’s waiver application remains on hold

The board’s long day also included an update on the state of the state’s application to the federal government for flexibility in meeting some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

The application hasn’t been formally filed yet as education department staff continue to negotiate terms of the deal with the U.S. Department of Education. The board took no action Wednesday.

The most interesting part of the update was new information about how Washington regards widespread test boycotting in Colorado last spring.

Here’s a summary of what CDE staff told the board:

USDE has indicated that the following would meet their requirements for addressing participation

  • Calculate and report state assessment participation rates for all schools and districts and disaggregated groups.
  • Schools and districts that fall below 95 percent participation in one or more of the state-administered English Language Arts or Math assessments address low participation rates as part of their Unified Improvement Plan.
  • Raise the issue of low participation rates, when applicable, with all Priority Improvement and Turnaround districts as well as priority schools, focus schools, and all other Title I schools with participation rates below 95 percent.
  • Provide information to low assessment participation rate schools and districts to share with their communities regarding the state assessments, including reasons for administering the assessments and how the results are used.

Board member Pam Mazanec of Larkspur summed it up this way: “So they want us to address the less than 95 percent participation by providing lots of data [and] we promise we try to get more participation.”

“They’ve indicated they will not take any direct action with those districts that are falling short” in participation, said Pat Chapman, CDE director of federal programs. “They’re quick to point out the conversation isn’t over yet.”

But, he added, “The indication is we’re close to what they want to see.”

See the full CDE update on the flexibility application here, and get more details on the issue in this Chalkbeat story.