Meaning of measures

Passing schools, struggling students: Colorado reconsiders its formula for rating schools  

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora in 2014.

The vast majority of Colorado schools and districts get a passing score from state regulators who track their performance. Yet fewer than half of Colorado third-graders meet state expectations in literacy and just 34 percent meet state expectations in math.

This disconnect has members of the Colorado State Board of Education calling for a change in how much weight the state gives to certain factors in determining whether a school or district is doing its job or needs more oversight.

“Both of those things cannot be true,” board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said Wednesday. “You cannot characterize the student as not performing and the school as performing.”

Colorado’s school accountability system rates districts based on achievement on state literacy, math, and science tests, on annual academic growth, and, for high schools, on postsecondary readiness as measured by graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on college entrance exams, and enrollment in college.

Schools rated in the lowest two tiers – turnaround or priority improvement — go on the state’s performance watch or “on the clock.”  Such schools face state intervention, which can include closing or turning over management to a charter organization, if they don’t move into a higher tier after five years. So far, the state has shied away from drastic action and approved improvement plans brought forward by districts themselves, but that could change as some have not shown enough progress.

At the elementary and middle school level, 60 percent of a school’s rating is based on growth, a measure of how much progress students make compared to other, similarly situated students, while 40 percent is based on achievement, a measure of what students know. At the high school level, 40 percent of a school’s rating is based on growth, 30 percent on achievement and 30 percent on measures of postsecondary readiness.

Achievement on standardized tests is strongly correlated with students’ socioeconomic background, and many experts believe growth scores are a better reflection of whether schools are helping students learn. 

But there remains the troubling question of whether students are learning what they need to know in school, whether that’s third-graders having the literacy skills to carry them through the rest of their education or high school graduates being able to attend college without taking remedial courses.

“Is it time for us to put greater weight on achievement, since that is where we want to go?” asked Angelika Schroeder, the Boulder Democrat who chairs the state board. “We want to see growth, but achievement is what matters.”

The ratings formula ties into a long-running debate among testing experts. Groups like The Education Trust, which supports test-based accountability, argue that growth models water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency. Others argue that achievement data is too closely tied to poverty to be a meaningful measure of school performance.  

In Denver Public Schools, parents and civil rights groups have questioned how schools could be rated green based on growth rates when most students in those schools couldn’t read on grade level. The district continues to tweak its own school performance framework in response to criticism.

Some states also use a hybrid measure known as growth-to-standard that looks at how long it would take students to reach grade level if they continued to make progress at the same rate.

This measure comes in for some of the same criticism as achievement data.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability, told Chalkbeat last year.

Colorado’s school ratings used to include a growth-to-standard measure as a major component, but they haven’t taken it into account since 2015, when changes in assessments made year-over-year comparisons difficult.

Now that the assessments have stabilized and comparisons are more appropriate, the state will be adding growth-to-standard back in, as required by law. That provides an opportunity to revisit how much weight each factor in the school performance framework gets. A technical advisory panel will be studying the issue this fall and make recommendations to the state board.

One of the questions state board members want answered before they render a decision in early 2019 is how applying a standard that more heavily weights achievement would have affected school ratings and the possibility of state intervention.

Preliminary ratings based on 2018 test data placed 90 percent of Colorado school districts and 83 percent of schools in the higher tiers that essentially leave the schools free to do their work as they see fit.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

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.