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.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.