On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

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The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared:

preliminary

Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.

out of the woods

With test scores nudging up, Westminster escapes state’s watchlist

Superintendent Pam Swanson and the Westminster school board celebrate their state ratings. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Public Schools)

Westminster Public Schools has improved enough to escape from the state’s crosshairs as a low-performing district, to the relief of school officials.

According to preliminary state ratings released Monday, the district has earned an “improvement” rating, or the middle rating on the state’s five-tier system for districts.

The district has been working under a state-ordered plan to raise student achievement and this year continued to post gradual but steady improvement in student growth across state test scores.

Colorado Department of Education

The district had just one more year to show that the plan was working, or else could have faced further state intervention. With the improvement this year, the district will no longer be under the state plan or timeline or face the threat of state action that could include closing schools or asking the district to merge with a higher-performing one.

But Westminster officials said their improvement plan will still be rolled out, because it was what the district intended to do anyway.

“Regardless, that’s Westminster’s plan,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said Monday afternoon. “I believe we are going to continue to see progress. We have to double down to keep that up.”

When the district was facing state intervention for the first time, Westminster officials argued that the state’s rating system was unfair because of the district’s demographics and its education model.

For almost a decade, Westminster schools have been using a competency-based model where students aren’t placed in a class based on their age and corresponding grade level. Instead, students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject, and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content. The switch to the model caught national media attention when it was first announced. Despite its struggles, Westminster has steadfastly stood by its model, an innovation among public schools.

District officials say their improvement now is proof the model works.

“For many years we have asked the Colorado Department of Education to provide more flexibility in its accountability system to support innovation instead of focusing on high-stakes, once-a-year testing,” Swanson said in a press release. “The state resisted, but we pushed forward with our model and have now shown success, even by the traditional state standards. It’s very gratifying.”

One of the components of that plan was to work with education researcher Robert Marzano to create a school in the district to be used as a lab for teachers to develop their skills in using the competency-based model. The district closed the former Flynn Elementary School and reopened it this month as the Marzano School.

School-by-school ratings clearly show Westminster’s improvement.

This year only one school, Westminster High, fell into the bottom two tiers. The high school, however, did not start rolling out the district’s education model at the same time as the rest of the district, and when it did, did so one grade level at a time, district officials said.

Westminster had more schools in the top category than it had before — nine, more than twice as many as last year.

Besides its unique educational model, Westminster board President Ryan McCoy also credited increased student and parental engagement for the district’s improvement.

“Students have to own their work as well,” McCoy said.

But officials said that’s all part of getting better, or “going deeper” in using the competency-based model.