exceptions to the rule

The highs and lows of Colorado education are spotlighted in ‘The Outliers’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file
Students at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary collaborate on a literacy lesson.

The Boulder Valley School District serves a largely affluent population with highly educated parents. In Sterling on the Eastern Plains, fewer than 1 in 6 adults has a bachelor’s degree. But both the Boulder district and the Valley Re-1 district serving Sterling send a large portion of their graduates to college, and few of them need remediation classes when they get there.

Those are just two of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado that examines both exemplary and struggling districts. A Plus focuses on data analysis to drive public support for policy changes. This is the second year that A Plus has released “The Outliers,” which is intended to help educators find models to emulate.

The report notes success stories like DSST: Stapleton High School, part of the Denver-based charter network, which posted the state’s highest average SAT scores for white students, black students and students from low-income families. Its Hispanic students also posted SAT scores that were among the highest in the state.

Among the report’s nuanced findings, the tiny Sheridan district south of Denver sends relatively few students to college, with many later needing remediation. But the district has made big strides in the graduation rate of homeless students, who make up 25 percent of its students. In 2016, 64 percent of its homeless students graduated, compared with 53 percent for the state and 42 percent in Denver.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The numbers only tell so much.

The report shows schools where students from low-income families — as measured by free- and reduced-price lunch rates — do well on elementary math tests or middle school language arts, and where Hispanic students graduate at high rates or have good SAT scores. However, it doesn’t explain just how those schools succeed.

CEO Van Schoales said A Plus Colorado isn’t able to visit all districts and schools to research what they’re doing right, but he hopes the report can still be a resource for principals and superintendents.

“Folks need to spend the time to get to understand the places where most kids are getting to standards or graduating or showing growth,” he said. “There can be an echo chamber in education around the cool places or what’s hot. This report is the data. There are a lot of places doing great work.”

Small districts are just as capable of serving at-risk students as large ones.

The first year of “The Outliers” only looked at the 76 districts serving at least 1,000 students. This year, the report looks at roughly 120 districts with publicly available data. Small districts are more likely to be outliers in both good and bad ways. With fewer students overall, it doesn’t take many students to significantly boost or drag down achievement percentages.

The researchers found small school districts serving low-income and diverse student populations and getting good outcomes.

“A lot of school districts think that the bigger you are, the more capacity you have and the more good you can do, and our report shows that that is not necessarily true,” Schoales said. “You can find school districts doing well by low-income kids all over Colorado and ones that are not.”

Online schools need a lot more scrutiny.

The report found that students in online schools do worse even than students in low-performing brick-and-mortar schools, and that when districts open online schools, it pulls down districtwide performance.

The Byers district east of Denver, where 82 percent of students attend online schools, and Colorado Digital BOCES, a cooperative collection of online schools, showed some of the lowest academic growth in the state, the report found.

“In theory, it sounds great,” but most online schools are not working for their students, Schoales said.

This is not a new concern. A 2016 investigation by Education Week raised serious questions about the operation of GOAL Academy online schools. But the sector continues to expand, with A Plus calling it “one of the fastest growing segments within the Colorado educational ecosystem.”

Colorado suppresses so much student data that it’s hard to get a complete picture.

Colorado has strict data privacy rules that lead to the suppression of student achievement information from small batches and sometimes even larger groups of students. As a result, A Plus Colorado said it doesn’t know whether the 300 black students in the Boulder Valley School District or the 366 students in Manitou Springs who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch are meeting grade-level expectations.

That’s because the state redacts scores whenever fewer than four students score at a particular proficiency level, and then shields additional scores from other groups and even other schools to further obscure the data.

A Plus says this 3-year-old policy makes it impossible to discern how certain groups of students are performing.

Complete test data is available to district officials, but Schoales said that’s not good enough. If they and the public can’t compare among school districts, they don’t know how much better they could be doing.

“The public and policy makers need to know what’s working and where we can learn from,” Schoales said.

Read the rest of the report, with lots of district- and school-level information, here:

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.