school quality

More than 140 Colorado public schools identified for low performance in 2017 state quality ratings

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

More than 140 Colorado public schools received one of the state’s two lowest quality ratings Wednesday, putting them at risk of state intervention if they do not improve student learning fast enough.

There are more than 1,700 schools in Colorado, so the vast majority of the state’s students attend schools that received one of the state’s two highest ratings, the state education department said after the State Board of Education approved the ratings.

All public schools annually receive a rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, based largely on results from student scores on the state’s English and math tests. The factor that carries the most weight is student growth, or data that tracks how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests. Other factors include high school graduation and dropout rates.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest). Schools also may receive one of two designations if they did not have enough students take a test to generate a quality rating.

Schools that receive the state’s lowest ratings are put on the so-called “accountability clock.” Schools that do not improve within five years receive a state-ordered school improvement plan — which could include turning schools over to independent operators or granting schools increased autonomy — aimed at boosting student performance.

Seven schools that received one of the two lowest ratings this year already are on such improvement plans. Earlier this year was the first time under Colorado’s current accountability system that state officials mandated changes to raise student performance.

“I know how much hard work it takes by school leaders, teachers, parents and students to lift performance enough to come off the state’s accountability clock,” Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “But this work is absolutely critical for students, so I’m very pleased to see that 98 schools came off the (accountability) clock this year. As a department, we will increase our focus on supporting schools needing improvements, so more of them raise and maintain their students’ performance.”

Two schools will face state intervention next year: Manaugh Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez school district and Martinez Elementary in the Greeley school district.

Four schools have just one more year to improve test scores or face the state board in 2019: Minnequa Elementary in Pueblo, Central Elementary in Commerce City, Paris Elementary in Aurora and Kepner Middle in Denver.

Here are some other details about this year’s quality ratings, according to the state education department:

  • About 87 percent of charter schools earned the two highest ratings.
  • Forty-five percent of the of the state’s 40 online schools received the state’s highest ratings, compared to 88 percent of non-online schools.
  • The majority of all schools, 66.6 percent or 1,131 schools, received the same rating they did in 2016.
  • Fourteen percent of schools improved by at one or more ratings levels.
  • The same percentage of schools dropped one or more levels.

In response to a large number of students skipping state tests, which adds uncertainty to the quality ratings, the education department last year begun flagging schools that had fewer than 95 percent of students take the state’s tests.

More than 500 schools received their plan ratings with a “low participation” description due to participation rates lower than 95 percent on two or more subject areas, including students with parental excusals.

This year, the department added the descriptor “meets participation” to ratings for those schools and districts that had above 95 percent participation rates on assessments in two or more content areas.

Thirty-two schools had their final ratings decreased because too few students took the state’s tests. Those students did not receive formal excusals by their parents.

Twenty-three schools received a rating of “insufficient state data” because the number of students was too small to complete the necessary accountability requirements or the data included did not necessarily represent all students in the school.

Some board members used Wednesday’s meeting to reiterate calls for shorter and different tests in the hopes to win over families who have skipped the state’s tests in recent years.

“I believe in accountability. I believe in assessments that allow us to compare,” said board member Pam Mazanec, a Larkspur Republican. “I’d like to see an assessment that parents can get behind and feel good about.”

The education department is working with multinational textbook publisher and test maker Pearson to design such tests that should be rolled out in 2019.

Find your school’s rating here

Note: If the final column is blank, the school is not on the accountability clock.

Stay tuned

As a global robotics competition descends on Detroit, few local students are included — for now

PHOTO: Getty Images

More than 15,000 junior engineers from around the the world are descending on Detroit this week for an international robotics competition.

Local students, for the most part, aren’t among them. Just one city high school qualified to send a team, out of more than 400 high school teams in the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

That could change in coming years, if Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has the impact he’s hoping.

“Robotics coming to DPSCD high schools in the fall,” he wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. “New programming. Stay tuned!”

Vitti has promised a long list of new offerings to start this fall, when he begins his second full school year leading Detroit’s main school district. Dozens of schools have started robotics teams in the last year, and in February, the district announced a $112,000 grant from the state education department to pay for robotics materials and after-school coaches in more schools.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer this type of programming to every student districtwide,” Vitti said in a press release announcing the grant. “This commitment excites our parents and the business community which is yearning for future employees with STEM skills.”

For now, Cesar Chavez Academy High School — a charter school that the district does not operate — will alone represent Detroit high school students at the international competition, set to recur in the city annually until 2020.

The academy’s five-year-old team, the Az-Tech Eagles, has racked up sponsorships from local companies, including General Motors and Detroit Labs, according to the competition website. But it faces an uphill battle in this week’s contest.

While most teams that qualified for the championship competition did so by winning local contests, Cesar Chavez got in by winning a “District Engineering Inspiration Award” earlier this year.

That award, according to competition rules, “celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community.”

The district entered 53 teams from 39 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, in qualifying competitions, according to a spokesperson. The only team from a district-run school in this week’s competition is the Mighty Lego Dolphins from Thurgood Marshall Elementary — one of the schools to introduce robotics this year.

About 40,000 people including students and their parents are expected for the competition, which starts Wednesday at Cobo Hall. A host of science- and technology-themed events have been planned throughout downtown including pop-up video arcades, live performances, and games.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.