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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: