Getting to yes

Experts handicap Colorado’s odds on assessment, accountability changes

Colorado should be cautiously optimistic about having key changes in its testing system approved by the U.S. Department of Education, according to education policy experts surveyed by Chalkbeat Colorado.

The testing law passed by the 2015 legislature contains several changes to the state’s assessment and accountability system, including a shift in high school standardized testing and a one-year timeout in the rating system for districts and schools.

Such changes require signoff by the U.S. Department of Education as part of Colorado’s overall ESEA Flexibility Request, a state-federal agreement that allows some state practices to vary from those required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as long as Colorado meets the overall goals of that federal law.

The state’s current flexibility agreement is expiring, and state and federal officials are negotiating a new one. Theoretically, federal rejection of Colorado proposals could threaten the state’s overall flexibility plan or could require the legislature to go back to the drawing board on testing in 2016.

“The department is going to be open to listening,” said Michelle Exstrom, a program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But, “It’s hard to know what the department will do,” cautions Kirsten Carr, director of accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group that represents the nation’s education commissioners.

Since the new state testing law (House Bill 15-1323) passed in May, officials at the Colorado Department of Education have been discussing those changes with their Washington counterparts, trying to get a sense of what will pass muster.

The department will prepare amendment language based on those discussions and present those amendments to the State Board of Education for approval in August, according to Alyssa Pearson, CDE interim associate commissioner of accountability, performance and support.

In an effort to handicap Colorado’s chances, Chalkbeat interviewed several education policy experts around the nation. While cautioning that it’s hard to predict what the federal department will decide, all believe the issues involved are open to negotiation. Here’s what they had to say on the key changes in state testing law.

High school testing

What’s proposed – Federal law requires language arts and math tests be given once in high school, which has been interpreted as during 10th, 11th or 12th grade. Colorado long has given the tests in ninth grade, which isn’t required, and in 10th grade as well. The new law proposes to continue 9th grade testing but to switch to a college and career readiness test like the Accuplacer in 10th grade.

“I don’t think the year of the test would be a sticking point,” said Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy and advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that focuses on high school improvement.

But, Lovell said, Colorado will need to demonstrate that new 10th grade tests are properly aligned with state academic standards.

Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, agrees that the U.S. DOE will want to know the details of how new tests align with standards and college admissions.

He said “ninth grade tests are potentially a problem.” Bellwether is a Massachusetts-based consulting group.

“I think there are policy arguments Colorado could make here,” said Lee Posey, education committee director in NCSL’s Washington office. “Those are the kind of things the [federal] department might look at.”

Exstrom, who works in NCSL’s Denver headquarters, said, “I think that will be a point where they [state officials] are really going to be negotiating with the Department of Education. She added that “states [like Colorado] that are showing good-faith efforts” on school improvement might be able to make the case for such a testing change.

While optimistic about Colorado’s chances, Lovell did say, “From a policy point of view I find it interesting that the tests would given at the beginning of high school,” when students have just begun their academic careers at that level.

The accountability timeout

What’s proposed – The coming school year will serve as a time-out for accreditation ratings. No new ratings will be announced this autumn, meaning schools and districts will retain the ratings they were assigned at the end of 2014. The rating system won’t full kick back into operation until the 2017-18 school year.

The experts don’t expect Colorado will have a problem on this issue, given previous statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the need for a time out after states switch tests, which Colorado did last spring.

“The department has shown openness to that in the past,” Exstrom said. “A number of states are in similar situations,” said Lovell. “It’s a logical request.”

Carr and Aldeman agreed, although Aldeman said the department will want assurances that improvement efforts at the lowest-performing schools will continue during the time-out year.

Other issues

Another element of the testing law allows pilot programs through which districts and groups of districts can try out new ways of testing students and holding schools accountable. The goal is that two programs will be chosen from the first group of pilots, and that one of those might eventually become the new state testing and accountability system. This plan will require multiple levels of federal approval.

A limited pilot program is underway in New Hampshire, and “A number of states have been looking” to that state, Exstrom said.

If a program is closely modeled on New Hampshire, and if alternative tests measure the same skills as statewide assessments, “The U.S. Department of Education would be open to that,” she said.

“This certainly will be an important part of negotiations,” said Lovell. “Given the department’s work with New Hampshire, I think there’s a pretty decent chance that Colorado and the department can work something out so that the pilot could be part of the plan.”

Aldeman noted that the department set “a pretty high bar” for New Hampshire and that “Colorado would have to meet a similarly high bar.”

Colorado also is proposing changes in testing of some English language learners and not using English language arts scores of ELL students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than two years as part of school and district accountability calculations.

“This is an area a number of states are exploring,” Exstrom said. “I don’t have a good sense of what their reaction will be,” said added, referring to federal officials.

(See this Chalkbeat story to learn more about these issues and about additional parts of the testing law that don’t require federal sign-off.)

Will Colorado get points for good behavior?

Some of the experts cited Colorado’s record on education reform as a point in its favor.

“Colorado has been a leader,” said Carr, adding that the department may lean toward proposals from states that are being “thoughtful” about their accountability systems.

“I think there’s room aroind the edges for a state that is really trying to make a good faith effort,” said Exstrom. “The department is going to open to listening.”

Congress may change the rules

The flexibility agreements held by Colorado and many other states are commonly called “waivers” because they are DOE-approved exemptions from some provisions of the ESEA.

The department started issuing waivers in 2011 because of congressional failure to update ESEA. But the issue is back on the front burner in Congress, where both the House and Senate are debating bills this week.

Increased flexibility for states is part of the measures before Congress, so the landscape could change significantly if lawmakers come to agreement.

“A lot of these questions could be answered by passage of the ESEA reauthorization,” Lovell said. “There’s a decent likelihood of that happening,” he added. “It may not be this calendar year, but there’s a decent possibility of it happening early into next year. … It has the best chance of passing that it has in a really long time.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”

Compare and Contrast

Comparing the Upper West Side and Harlem integration plans: Here’s how schools, admissions offers could change

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents gathered at a recent Community Education Council meeting in District 3 to learn about the city's plan to integrate Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools.

Following an uproar over a plan to integrate Manhattan’s District 3, the Department of Education introduced three more proposals to change the makeup of middle schools on the Upper West Side and in Harlem.

The initial plan for integrating the 16 middle schools — which drew the ire of some parents concerned their children would be elbowed out of sought-after schools — was pulled by the education department. While the new plans also set aside 25 percent for low-performing students, they differ from the original option in an important way: they don’t rely solely on student test scores to guide admissions decisions.

We’ve placed each plan side-by-side to help you get up to speed. The district hopes to put its new admissions system into place in early June, in time for the middle school admissions process.

What would the plans do?

Each plan would give needy students priority for a quarter of admissions offers at 16 middle schools. Within those seats, 10 percent of offers would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to students with the next-highest level of need.

However, the plans look at different factors to determine who gets priority:

Plan A would consider test scores and whether a student attended an elementary school where many students are economically needy.

Plan B would take test scores and report cards into account.

Plan C, presented by city officials Tuesday, would weigh test scores, report card grades, and whether a student qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used measure of poverty. The plan considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school, which would be the case with Plan A.

How would the schools change?

Supporters of the plans hope they will extend academic opportunity to more students in District 3. And since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools in numerous ways. But despite the controversy, the city’s projections actually show the impact of the changes are likely to be small because of how families are ranking schools. Some struggling students are already applying to the district’s more sought-after schools. But higher-performing students — who tend to be middle class — are not ranking schools where many students are poor or struggling.

These projections are based on how families applied to schools last year.

Under Plan A, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 21 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and come from high-needs elementary schools. That’s an increase of 19 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 26 percent of seats to students in the priority group, up 15 percentage points.
  • West Side Collaborative Middle School would offer 49 percent of seats to students in the priority group — a decrease of 14 percentage points.

Under Plan B, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West End Secondary School would offer 25 percent of seats to students with low report card grades and test scores, an increase of 13 percentage points.
  • Dual Language Middle School would offer 64 percent of seats to the priority group. That is a 12-point decrease.
  • Both the Computer School and Booker T. Washington would see an 11 point increase in offers to the priority group. At the Computer School, 32 percent of offers would go to those students. At Booker T. Washington, the priority group would comprise 19 percent of offers.

Under Plan C, the schools that would change the most are:

  • West Side Collaborative would offer 47 percent of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. That is a decrease of 16 percentage points.
  • The Computer School would offer 28 percent of seats to students in the priority group, an increase of 16 percentage points.
  • West End Secondary School would offer 17 percent of seats to the priority group — up 13 percentage points.

But under each plan, schools would still be largely divided between those that serve mostly top-performers and those who serve students who struggle.

How many families would be impacted?

Contrary to what the backlash to the plan suggests, they would actually only impact a small number of the almost 2,000 families applying to the district’s middle schools.

The city’s projections show more students benefiting from the changes because they would be offered a spot in a higher-ranked school, or get a match rather than be shut out. That is likely to be an important factor in the district’s decision making, since the city has proven uneasy about the impression that student would be forced into schools they don’t want to go to.

Under Plan A, 109 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower on their application. The city estimates that 96 families would not receive an offer to a school on their list — 18 more families than without the plan. But 169 students would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.

Under Plan B, 135 students would get a seat in a school that was lower on their application. It’s estimated that 100 families would not get accepted to any school on their list, 22 more than without the plan. On the other hand, 194 students would benefit. 

Under Plan C, 137 families would get a seat in a school that they ranked lower. The city’s projections show that 113 families wouldn’t be matched to a school they picked — 35 more families than before. That’s compared to 185 students who would be offered a seat at a school they ranked higher.