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State wants negative factor lawsuit tossed

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 08/15/2014 - 19:00

Attorney General John Suthers has formally asked for dismissal of the lawsuit challenging the “negative factor” used by the legislature to set annual K-12 funding.

“Amendment 23 expressly requires the public school finance formula’s statewide base per pupil funding amount to at least keep pace annually with the rate of inflation. By its plain terms, Amendment 23 does not extend to overall state education funding as plaintiffs claim,” Suthers wrote in a motion to dismiss that was filed in Denver District Court this week. (See full motion here.)

The lawsuit, Dwyer v. State, was filed June 27 by a group of school districts and parents who claim the negative factor is unconstitutional. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about the suit.)

At issue is interpretation of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that requires annual K-12 spending increases based on inflation.

In 2010 the legislature created the negative factor to control school spending as lawmakers continued to struggle with the overall state budget. The legal reasoning behind the negative factor is that A23 applies only to base per-student funding, not to additional funds districts receive to compensate for size, number of at-risk students and other factors. The theoretical funding shortfall created by the negative factor is just under $1 billion.

The plaintiffs argue A23 should be applied to all school spending, but the state’s motion to dismiss emphatically disagrees.

“Amendment 23 does not refer to any other portion of the finance formula. It refers to the statewide base per pupil funding … leaving no question whatsoever that component of the finance formula — and that component only — must at least keep pace annually with the rate of inflation,” the motion reads.

The filing also makes standard motion-to-dismiss arguments about the plantiffs not having proper legal standing to sue or stating a proper claim for relief.

Plantiffs’ lawyers said they will oppose the motion and have until Sept. 29 to file a reply.

Categories: Urban School News

More Colorado students opt out of tests, but no sign of groundswell

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 08/15/2014 - 18:56

About 500 more Colorado students did not take the state’s standardized reading test in 2014 because their parents objected than the year before, according to new data released by the Colorado Department of Education.

Despite the apparent increase in vocal opposition to the tests that erupted earlier this year and some prediction that opposition would be borne out in testing numbers, the opt-out movement barely made a statistical dent in Colorado’s testing regimen.

To put the opt-out numbers in context, in 2014 three-tenths of a percent of all students tested in Colorado opted out. That number grew is up from two-tenths of a percent in 2013. The numbers are drawn from test results classified as “parent refusals.”

“That’s awesome,” said Peggy Robertson, one of the state’s opt-out leaders. “I’m thrilled with that.”

In total, 1,412 students between the third and 10th grade did not take the reading test in 2014. The numbers per grade ranged from 66 opt-outers in the third grade to 520 in the tenth grade. According to the data, the older the student the more likely they were not to take exams.

Robertson said any increase is welcomed by her organization, United Opt-Out, especially given it has no significant monetary resources and is entirely run by volunteers of parents and a small group of teachers.

Parents who oppose the state standardized tests, which state law requires schools to administer, believe they eat up valuable teaching time, don’t add to instruction, and are more about profit for private businesses than improving student achievement.

Supporters counter that standardized tests provide parents, teachers, and community with invaluable information about how students, schools, and their districts are performing.

Robertson predicted the number of students who are opted-out of Colorado’s tests will continue to rise, especially next spring when new computer-based tests aligned to the  Common Core State Standards, which Colorado adopted, are rolled out.

The standards have separately been the subject of criticism. And, Robertson said, the two sides are already joining forces in anticipation of the new tests.

Meanwhile, a panel, responding to parents concerns and created by a 2014 legislative bill, has been formed to study Colorado’s testing diet. Recommendations will be made early next year to the legislature.

Categories: Urban School News

Rocky year for high-performing charter network signals challenge of scaling up

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 08/15/2014 - 14:45

In a year in which state test scores stayed mostly constant across the state, one big change stood out to observers of Denver Public Schools: big score drops at STRIVE, historically one of city’s highest performing charter networks.

Against a backdrop of overall increases in DPS, STRIVE schools score drop in most subjects was a surprise. Their decline was in part a product of rapid expansion but, school leaders say, was also due to the rollout of curriculum aligned with the new state standards.

Their struggles hint at the challenges of attempting to scale previously successful schools — one of the district’s key strategies for improving overall performance. But it also signals potentially rocky roads ahead for many district schools as they begin their own implementation of the new standards this year.

The STRIVE Preparatory Schools network, which developed out of a summer program run by founder Chris Gibbons, has undergone a rapid expansion in the past several years, often at the behest of district officials, who point to the network’s success as something that should be replicated. What started as a single northwest Denver campus off Federal Boulevard in 2006 is now eight campuses ranging from far northeast to southwest Denver.

Many of the network’s schools still exceed the district average proficiency in at least one subject and the network’s growth scores were strong in some areas. But Gibbons said STRIVE’s focus is on increasing proficiency, which largely did not occur, and called the overall results “really honest accountability.”

While the score drop may force the network to slow down its expansion and recalibrate, Gibbons says the long-term vision for more schools across the city remains unchanged.

“Rapid growth is always a challenge,” said Gibbons. The network hired more new teachers last year and saw more turnover among those new teachers, an issue Gibbons suggested was likely a contributing factor to the decline.

And the network may already by locked into more expansion. The STRIVE Excel high school just finished its first year and is in the process of building out its 10th through 12th grades. And district officials gave STRIVE the go-ahead this spring to open a new campus at troubled Kepner Middle School.

So Gibbons and his team are in process of creating a game plan for the coming year, to get back on track. He has met with principals and teachers to discuss what they saw last year and make corrections for the coming year. One common thread he and his principals found was a lack of focus.

“Our time and our intention as a leadership team have drifted a bit too much,” said Gibbons. “We need to focus on stability.”

The principal of Sunnyside’s campus, where the percent of eight graders scoring proficient in math dropped by almost half, echoed that sentiment, saying she got caught up in reinventing how to run a school, rather than making sure her teachers were focused on how to run a classroom and track students’ progress.

“Last year, I overcomplicated things,” said Betsy Peterson. Take, for example, passing periods at Sunnyside, which were often noisy and disorganized affairs.

“I used a decibel reader to measure if they were quiet enough,” Peterson said. But the problem was more basic. “Nobody’s actually been well-trained on the passing period.”

So this year, she’ll spend some time practicing passing period with teachers to make sure kids feel safe and welcome when they enter a classroom. And she’s refocussing on making sure her teachers are succeeding in their classrooms.

“A lot of the nuts and bolts of teaching, we’ve moved away from that a bit as a network,” said Peterson. This year’s scores are “a reminder that that’s what works.”

Proficiency at STRIVEs campuses, last year and this year in math: | Create Infographics

Another underlying issue — one that could signal trouble for Denver as a whole — was the network’s mixed results from a new Common Core-aligned curriculum, rolled out a year before the rest of the city’s schools. But the curriculum they selected, which was a mix of “off-the-shelf” and teacher-designed, failed to meet the network’s needs and, as some observers have warned, teachers did not receive enough training to be successful.

“Some of the struggles around that are just the ones tied up with launching a whole new system,” said Gibbons.

In eighth grade math, where Sunnyside and all of STRIVE’s campuses saw declines, they are switching curriculum. But for sixth grade writing, where several campuses saw at least slight gain in the number of students scoring proficient, last year’s curriculum will be sticking around.

Observers say the rocky results for one of Denver’s highest performing networks suggest another pattern in this year’s test results: inconsistency.

“You can’t predict who will have scores that will be going up or going down,” said Van Schoales, the head of A+ Denver, an education research and advocacy organization. “I just don’t see any patterns.”

For example, several schools in the district’s Far Northeast network of schools, which receive intensive support and supervision, saw drops in proficiency. The percent of students who scored proficient at Green Valley Elementary, which had seen steady gains in all subjects, declined by 10 percentage points in math, nine in writing and four in reading.

That can make it hard to determine what’s working and what’s not, an issue Denver’s superintendent acknowledged.

“Human beings are complicated,” said Tom Boasberg. “The quality of your execution is — do you have good people and are they working well together? Sometimes the reason something works in school A and not school B is the people.”

Categories: Urban School News

State preschool gains “erode” to 2005 levels

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 08/15/2014 - 12:05

After years of budget cuts, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs in Illinois has fallen to levels not seen in nearly a decade – before the state rolled out its ambitious Preschool for All initiative, according to a new report by Voices for Illinois Children.

Since 2009, state funding for preschool programs has dropped by more than 25 percent. In the same period, enrollment decreased from an all-time high of 95,000 to 70,000.

“Illinois has been a leader in early childhood education in the past, and after a long period of progress we’ve been watching these gains erode,” said Lisa Christensen Gee, a policy analyst for Voices for Illinois Children and co-author of the report. “We need to ensure that the General Assembly understands the significance and importance of making these investments, both in good and bad economic times.”

While the state kept funding for early childhood program steady for the 2015 fiscal year, it’s unclear how a projected $2 billion decline in income tax revenues set to take place in January would affect these and other programs.

Theresa  Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Education, said the report reflects the fact there is far greater need for services than there are resources in Illinois.

“I think it is a budget issue,” she said. “We have many people on both sides of the aisle who are committed to early childhood education who understand its importance […].For sure, the governor has expressed his support and understanding that it’s a critical issue.”

While state funds are limited, Hawley’s office has successfully pursued other federal grant opportunities related to early childhood education, including millions of dollars in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants. She said Illinois will also be preparing an application for a new $250 million preschool development grant competition that was announced earlier this week.

The Voices report, titled “Disparities in Access to Preschool in Illinois,” also uses American Community Survey (ACS) data to analyze enrollment in all kinds of programs -- both public and private. Overall enrollment went up from 49 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2008, but has since remained steady at about 54 percent.

However, significant gaps exist between racial groups. About 58 percent of white children and 55 percent of black children attend some sort of preschool, yet only 40 percent of Hispanic children are enrolled. Research has suggested that the lower enrollment rates among Latino children can be partially attributed to income, language barriers and distrust of government programs. In addition, available preschool slots in Latino neighborhoods have simply not kept up with the growth of the population. Hawley said that’s one reason the state has made grants available in recent years to build or expand early childhood facilities in the communities that most need them.

Still, says Martin Torres, policy analyst for the Latino Forum, the state Legislature needs to reexamine its priorities in order to ensure that the highest-need communities are getting the limited resources that are out there.

“Latino children continue to be underrepresented and underserved in the state’s Preschool for All programs,” he said. “We need to look at different policies and solutions to address that disparity, both when resources are available for new slots and when they aren’t.”

The report goes on to note disparities in preschool enrollment based on family income and parental education levels. Children at the poverty level, for example, accounted for 23.4 percent of the population under age 5 but only 18.7 percent of those enrolled in preschool. “The decline in state preschool funding, which has coincided with rising child poverty rates, has exacerbated the situation,” the report notes.

In the City of Chicago, preschool participation rates vary widely, with the highest participation on the more affluent North Side, and the lowest in the Northwest and Southwest sides – both heavily Latino communities. Similarly, some of the communities with the lowest preschool participation rates in Cook County have high concentrations of poverty and Latino children.

Despite the enrollment decline in state-funded programs, preschool-aged children in Illinois are still more likely to be enrolled in some sort of early education program than their counterparts in other states, according to the ACS data. While the Illinois enrollment rate is 54 percent, nationally just 48 percent of children are enrolled in some sort of preschool.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: TCAP results make headlines around the state

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 08/15/2014 - 09:43

Special report - Part 3

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing. And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, Pueblo could pose the first big test of Colorado’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


The three-year run of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests has ended with 2014 statewide student proficiency levels at about the same place where they were in the previous two years. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, CPR )

Media around the state sorted through what the final set of TCAP results mean in their communities. ( Colorado Springs Gazette, Pueblo Chieftain, Loveland Reporter Herald, Vail Daily, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Durango Herald, Glenwood Springs Post Independent )

Check out our searchable databases to see how your school or district did on the tests. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

In the final year of the current state testing regimen, Denver Public Schools made steady but incremental gains in key areas, but more than half of Denver students are still not reaching grade level targets. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Release of the 2014 TCAP scores sent members of the State Board of Education into a philosophical discussion that highlighted the group’s longstanding ideological divisions about education reform. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Nobody at 201 E. Colfax Ave. was happy about 2014’s TCAP performance and growth stats, but Department of Education leaders do have some optimism about future results from the state’s new testing system – if schools fully implement new academic content standards and integrate them into classrooms. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Core jitters

Teachers are getting steadily more training in the Common Core, but they're not feeling much more prepared to teach it, according to new survey results. ( EdWeek )

College days

Boulder comes out on top in a new ranking of the 50 best college towns in America, and Fort Collins is No. 14. ( Denver Business Journal )


Amendment 68 is a transparent attempt to use Colorado’s initiative process to benefit a single, out-of-state company, almost certainly at the expense of existing Colorado businesses and jobs. And the money for education is unlikely to appear out of thin air. ( Cortez Journal )

Categories: Urban School News

CDE sees glimmers of hope in new testing system

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 21:12

Nobody at 201 E. Colfax Ave. was happy about 2014’s TCAP performance and growth stats, but Department of Education leaders do have some optimism about future results from the state’s new testing system – if schools fully implement new academic content standards and integrate them into classrooms.

The final set of TCAP results showed slight declines in percentages of students performing proficient or advanced on reading, writing and math tests. (See this story for full details, and search our database for results from districts and schools of interest to you.)

“It disturbs us all,” education Commissioner Robert Hammond said of the results in a presentation to the State Board of Education. But he added, “If we stay the course students will succeed at greater and greater rates. … We’re seeing it in some districts – we’re really seeing some improvement.” (Meanwhile, the board took a different tack in its TCAP post-mortum – see story.)

Hammond and other CDE officials said the key to future improvement in test scores is full integration of classroom instruction with state academic content standards, a process that’s still unfolding in many districts.

“If instruction is not happening in the classroom, we are not going to go anywhere,” Hammond said.

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley and Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen both said CDE’s top priority in the coming year is to help districts full integrate the standards into classrooms.

In a later conversation with Chalkbeat Colorado, officials repeated that point. State officials believe that the standards are superior to the ones that preceded them.

“It’s very clear what the expectations are at every grade level,” said Melissa Colsman, executive director of the achievement and strategy division. (It’s also a widely held view that some districts didn’t pay much attention to the old standards.)

If districts successfully upgrade instruction, “long term we’re going to see improvement,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment. “Within a couple of years we should see movement in scores,”

(Department officials have repeatedly noted that the percentage of students in the top two proficiency levels will drop on the first year of new tests, compared to those percentages for the TCAPs. That traditionally happens with new assessments because the old and new tests are different and assess different things. See this story for an indication of what might happen in Colorado.)

Owen and others noted that Colorado’s biggest challenge probably isn’t overall performance levels or low-performing individual schools but the significant achievement gaps between ethnic and income groups. “There is a larger problem across the state when it comes to performance and these achievement gaps.”

Hawley and Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also noted significant enrollment growth and demographic change over the last decade, a period that spans the TCAPs and a significant portion of the CSAP era.

Asp told the board that since 2004 enrollment has grown by 119,331 (16 percent), the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has jumped by 139,074 (61 percent) and enrollment of English language learners is up 34,999 students (38 percent).

The education system has been “able to accommodate change and population growth” without scores dropping,” Hawley said. “But it’s not good enough.”

What parents should know

Release of the TCAP results prompted the usual flurry of news releases from districts and schools, spinning the results in ways intended to put the best face on things.

Chalkbeat asked the CDE execs what advice they have for parents who are trying to interpret results.

Hawley said to look at whether students in a particular school and grade are growing, and Asp said to check on whether growth rates are above state average.

Hawley suggested parents ask principals about how a school’s teachers are being trained in the new standards and how to use them.

And communications director Janelle Asmus said parents always should ask what they can do to improve the performance of their children.

Categories: Urban School News

TCAP results prompt State Board to take familiar ideological sides

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 21:07

Today’s release of the 2014 TCAP scores sent members of the State Board of Education into a philosophical discussion that highlighted the group’s longstanding ideological divisions about education reform.

Member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver kicked off the discussion, calling the results “very, very troubling” and saying the history of relatively flat CSAP and TCAP results “is even more troubling that I imagined previously.” Berman is a Democrat and a former DPS board member who’s on the advisory committee of committee of Democrats for Education Reform – Colorado.

“If we really want to see some significant improvement, what’s it going to take?” she asked education Commissioner Robert Hammond. (See this story for more details on what Hammond and other Department of Education leaders thought about the test results.)

After Hammond and other CDE brass talked about department efforts, board member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction came in with another thought.

“There’s one element nobody’s talking about,” she said. “Students not taking responsibility for their own actions. … We teach them very early on that minimum work is OK in many cases. To me that is one of the really big missing pieces.” Republican Neal is a retired schoolteacher and former local board member who often is a swing vote on the board.

Member Deb Scheffel of Parker responded to Berman in a different way. “We’re going to continue to get these kind of results if we continue a regulatory approach to reform,” she said. “Students and parents need more choice. … We really need a different model, a different funding model so that money follows kids.” Scheffel is dean of the School of Education at Colorado Christian University.

“I second that,” murmured member Pam Mazanec of Larkspur, a Republican who’s been active in the Dougco school district.

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder suggested the board should perhaps take a closer look at the performance of choice schools, and Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada commented, “I can’t say that I have seen eye-popping examples of innovation” at non-traditional schools. Schroeder is a former college accounting professor, and Goff is retired Jeffco teacher and administrator.

“We’ve had decades to do it this way,” Mazanec said. “We’ve never tried the choice model. … I’d really like to give that one a try. I don’t know for sure if we’d get better results, but we’d have happier parents.”

Berman defended her own choice credentials, noting the extensive choices available in DPS but wondered about the diversity of many charter schools. “Deb, how many low-income kids of color go to those schools?” (Berman was referring to four charter schools whose students posted high ACT scores.)

“We need more schools like that so [those students] can go to them,” Scheffel responded.

Berman rocked her fellow board members a bit when she replied, “White parents will take their kids out [of choice schools] because they don’t want their kids to be with kids of color.”

Republican chair Paul Lundeen of Monument generally sides with Scheffel and Mazanec, and he did say, “I think we’re a regulatory track, and we’re trying to regulate our way out of this situation.” He said good schools aren’t rewarded and failing ones aren’t punished “like in the marketplace.”

But he tried to calm the situation, saying, “Let’s do this at another time” and praising Berman’s “eloquent and wonderful” remarks. “I respect very deeply your feedback.”

He and Berman went back and forth a bit more about choice until Lundeen said, “I don’t know exactly where the board would like to go with this conversation,” adding that the group wasn’t “in a position to give specific direction” to CDE right now.

Another ideological discussion avoided – or delayed

Another item on the board’s Thursday agenda was a Lundeen-proposed resolution strongly criticizing the planned new framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History class and test. The resolution criticized the framework because it allegedly “emphasizing negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” among other alleged lapses. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story.)

But Lundeen pulled the resolution off the agenda, saying other members had asked him for more time to think about it and that it might come up again at SBE’s September meeting.

The resolution was criticized by academics and school district officials. See this letter from University of Colorado history professor Fred Anderson for an example of that reaction. Fritz Fischer, director of history education at the University of Northern Colorado, sent this letter.

Categories: Urban School News

Special Report: The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 17:17

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, the small southern Colorado city could pose the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of Pubelo’s educators and parents. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaJulianne Williamson spreads out her children’s academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane. Part 1: As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards. “My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.” But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long. Among them: “What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked. PHOTO: Nicholas GaricaStudents at the Pueblo Academy of Arts participate in a science lesson in April. The middle school, formerly known as Pitts, was once considered toxic — like five of the city’s other middle schools. Part 2: Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenge This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge. Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state. PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaStudents at the Chaves Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy, a charter school, read at the beginning of class. Pueblo parents don’t appear to be interested in taking advantage of the city’s two high-performing middle schools. Part 3: Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo While the Pueblo school system has gotten better since Pueblo’s outgoing superintendent Maggie Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains. And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new leader, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year. The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.
Categories: Urban School News

Find out how your school did on the 2014 TCAPs and ACTs

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:55

The state released the scores from last year’s round of testing, including the reading, writing and math results from TCAP. In the final year before the state switches over to a new testing system, scores around the state dipped slightly but remained mostly flat, continuing a pattern that has existed for years.

Check out our searchable databases to see how your school or district did on the tests and tune back in as we dig into the data.

Find your school or district’s test scores here. Find your school or district’s growth scores, which the state uses to see how far students move in a year, here. Find your school or district’s ACT scores here.
Categories: Urban School News

In Denver, steady but slow gains in final year of state tests

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 14:13

In the final year of the current state testing regimen, Denver Public Schools made steady but incremental gains in key areas but over half of Denver students are still not reaching grade level targets.

“To be at grade level is a strong and sometimes painfully strong, predictor of whether you’ll graduate high school,” said Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg. He said the lack of progress for the state as a whole, especially for low-income students, was “a crisis.” Read our story on the state-level results here.

Denver students’ test scores rose just over two percentage points in math and just over three percentage points in writing. Scores in writing remained largely stagnant and reading scores in the earliest tested grades, which was a focus for the district as a law focused on early literacy goes into effect, dropped slightly.

“[Early literacy] is such a critical indicator,” said Boasberg. He pointed to expanding preschool — an idea which will go before voters this fall— as a necessary step to improve the district’s early reading scores.

Boasberg also acknowledged voices that say the pace of improvement in the district is too slow.

“I’m one of those voices,” Boasberg said. But, he said, “there’s no secret sauce.”

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Chalkbeat spoke with Boasberg and dug through Denver’s scores to pull a few highlights from this year’s data dump. Read on for a few takeaways and return in the next days, as we dig into the district’s scores — and look at what, if anything, we can learn from them.

Ex-principals and their test scores

Last school year was marked by a series of high profile leadership changes at several of the district’s lowest performing schools, including a mid-year change at Manual High School. When parents and community members objected to leadership changes, district officials often cited insufficient progress or low scores as a factor in the principal’s removal. But this year’s results suggest that it may not be that simple.

At Manual, students made single-digit gains in all areas, although the school failed to reach its 2012 levels in reading.  This year, 29 percent of students were proficient in reading, 16 percent of students were proficient in writing and just six percent of students were proficient in math.

Columbine Elementary, whose principal Beth Yates was replaced at the end of the year, saw an increase in students working at grade level across content areas. Columbine, in particular, saw double-digit gains in reading and writing under Yates. Her successor, Jason Krause, came from Smith Renaissance School, another Northeast Denver elementary school that has seen steady gains.

Boasberg would not comment on individual personnel decisions.

One bright(ish) spot: the city’s middle schools

Historically an area of weakness, Denver’s middle schools have seen steady if slow gains in reading and writing over the past three years. And nearly a third of the city’s middle schools scored high enough on the state’s measure of student progress to be called “high growth.”

“Our middle schools are some of the best middle schools in the state,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

What percent of Denver middle schoolers are working at grade-level? | Create Infographics

[Mouse over the figure to see more details]

Still, much of those gains came from the city’s charter schools; the district-run schools grew slightly in writing but have declined in both reading and math since 2012. At Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver, where district officials announced a planned overhaul for the 2015-16 school year, scores declined or stagnated in all subjects. Charter schools have grown consistently in reading and writing but saw their scores decline in math this year. The average proficiency level in charters remains nearly 10 points higher than district-run middle schools.

For example, KIPP Montbello, which serves a predominantly low-income student population, has seen an 18 percentage point gain in reading proficiency since 2012. One of KIPP’s other campuses, Sunshine Peak Academy in southwest Denver, saw a nine point jump in reading proficiency in the same time period. Some district-run schools saw similar gains, such as a 10 point jump in the number of students writing proficiently at Stapleton’s McAuliffe International School.

And not all was well with the district’s charter schools. The STRIVE network, which is one of the largest and historically highest performing charter networks in the city, saw declines in most subjects at nearly all its middle schools. At its original Federal campus, the number of students who scored proficient in math dropped by 17 percentage point and scores in reading and writing dropped by five and eight percentage points respectively. The Lake campus saw similar declines, although the dropoff in writing was not as precipitous. STRIVE  is slated to be a part of the Kepner turnaround process. Chalkbeat will be digging into STRIVE’s decline and the performance of the city’s charter networks later this week.

Mixed performance among school networks

One of the district’s key strategies for its lowest performing schools has been to organize them into networks, like the systems of schools in west and far northeast Denver. Schools in the networks receive targeted support from the district and often use similar strategies to try and improve student outcomes.

For example, schools in the Far Northeast network, which is known as the Denver Summit School Network, have longer days and years. They also participate in a small-group math tutoring program. Some other networks are based solely on geography (for example, the district’s elementary networks) or school type (like charter or innovation).

How much have scores changed in three years? Blue indicates increase, red indicates decrease. Note: change indicates the number of points gained or lost between 2012 and 2014.

Find out which network your school is in here.

This year’s results show that the network strategy has produced mixed results. The Far Northeast turnaround network and the West Denver Network, which is also targeted at struggling schools, both saw declines in multiple subject areas. Charter schools saw a slight decline in performance in both reading and math, and overall performance remained slightly below the district average. And the district’s alternative pathways schools, which serve students who are at risk or have already dropped out of school, saw their already low levels of proficiency decline further.

One exception to the overall declines in the district’s targeted initiatives is the district’s innovation schools, which have increased across all subjects.

For example, the percent of students at Valdez Elementary reading and writing proficiently increased by double-digits and the school saw a small increase in math as well. Innovation schools receive increased freedom from state and district requirements, under a 2008 law.

Note that over half the district’s innovation schools are in that network. Manual High School, for example, was moved into the high school network after its low performance came to light earlier this year. Others are in the Pathways Schools network or one of the district’s two turnaround networks.

Send us your DPS TCAP questions. We’ll take the best questions and answer them in a followup post. You can find us at or on Twitter @chalkbeatCO.

Categories: Urban School News

Short TCAP testing era ends on flat note

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 14:05

The three-year run of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests has ended with 2014 statewide student proficiency levels little changed from when the test was introduced.

Results from tests given in spring 2014 in grades three through 10 showed 68.9 percent of the state’s students were reading at proficient or advanced levels. Some 56.4 percent were proficient or above in math, and 54.3 percent of students were proficient or above in writing.

The state’s overall results from this year were within one percentage point of last year’s numbers in all three subject areas.

At the state level, no grade moved more than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, almost every grade level declined in almost all subject areas. Those exceptions were slight increases in fifth and seventh grade reading, 3rd and 8th grade writing and 8th and 9th grade math.

As has been the pattern with statewide testing results for several years, there are significant achievement gaps among ethnic groups, and overall proficiency levels tend to drop as students get older.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Multiple years of test results are used to calculate student academic growth, which the Department of Education uses to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results are also in roughly the range reported for 2013.

The final major piece of the annual state testing report is results of the ACT test, which is taken by all high school juniors regardless of whether they’re going to college.

The average ACT composite score increased to 20.4 (out of a possible 36) this year, just a third of a point higher than last year’s average. Average scores on the English, reading and science reasoning sections of the test also increased very slightly, while the average math score was unchanged.

State tests date back to 1997

This year’s TCAP results, released Thursday, mark the end of an era for statewide standardized testing, which began in 1997 with administration of the first Colorado Student Assessment Program reading and writing tests to fourth graders. Reading tests for third graders were added in 1998, and the system was expanded gradually. It wasn’t until 2006 that reading, math and writing tests were given to all students in grades 3-10. (Click here for details about CSAP/TCAP tests in two other subjects.)

CSAP tests ended in 2011 after new state content standards were adopted, and the TCAPs were intended to bridge the gap until new tests could be developed that would be fully aligned with the new standards. (Get more background here from the state education department on TCAPs.)

A 2011 analysis of CSAP scores by I-News and Chalkbeat Colorado found that fourth-grade proficient and advanced levels in reading increased by 10 percentage points, from 55 to 65 percent, over the 15-year run of the CSAPs.

But that analysis also found that almost all the reading gains came in the first 10 years of testing, with most districts either stagnating or falling slightly since 2006. (See this story for details on the last year of CSAP testing.)

In the last year of CSAP, 68 percent of all students were proficient or advanced in reading, with 56 percent in math and 55 percent in writing. Those figures are within two percentage points of those reported during the three years of TCAP.

Colorado education has undergone major changes since 1997, including implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law, changing accountability requirements, periodic funding crises and implementation of new standards. There also have been important changes in student demographics, most notably a sharp increase in the proportion of students who are Hispanic, and a corresponding drop in white students.  In 1997 71.3 percent of students were white and 19.3 percent Hispanic. Last year the percentages were 55 and 32.8 percent. The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has risen from 34.3 percent in 2006 (the year the full testing system was rolled out) to 42.2 percent in 2013-14.

Third generation of tests is coming The testing system

  • New online science tests were given in grades 5 and 8 last spring
  • The first social studies tests, also online, were given in grades 4 and 7
  • Science and social studies tests will be given in 12th grade this fall
  • New online CMAS language arts and math tests roll out next spring. Tests start in 3rd grade, and 11th grade tests are being added
  • There will be two sets of language arts and math tests, one in early spring and one near the end of the school year
  • Schools administer annual literacy assessments in grades K-3 under the READ Act
  • Districts are phasing in school readiness assessments required by the CAP4K law

Colorado’s next set of tests – named Colorado Measures of Academic Success – are headed to state classrooms next spring. The math and language arts tests (combining reading and writing) will be the multi-state online assessments developed by the Pearson company for the PARCC testing consortium, and those tests will be based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

While PARCC test results won’t be available until late 2015 or possibly early 2016, state education officials have been warning for months that proficiency percentages will drop, as usually happens after states launch brand-new tests. Scores have dropped in several states that already have rolled out new tests. (See this story about projected science and social studies test results for a preview of what’s likely to happen.)

Stagnant or falling test scores always spark contentious debate among educators and interest groups about the cause – whether misdirected reforms, an underfunded K-12 system, ineffective classroom instruction, meaningless tests or the challenges posed by at-risk students, or some combination of factors are to blame.

The perceived burden of testing also has become a growing issue. A state task force assigned to investigate that and other testing issues is starting its work and will make recommendations to the 2015 legislature. (Get more background on the Colorado testing debate here and here in the Chalkbeat archives.)

Highlights from 2014 TCAP results Growth

CDE uses growth data to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results also in roughly the range reported for 2013. (See detailed explanations of those categories here.) Here’s what those results looked like:

  • Reading: 30.9 percent catch-up, 80.7 percent keep-up and 13.7 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 32.1 percent, 81.5 percent and 14.9 percent.)
  • Math: 11.2 percent catch-up, 62.4 percent keep up and 16.5 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 12.4 percent, 63.4 percent and 18.6 percent.)
  • Writing: 26 percent catch-up, 72.4 percent keep-up and 18.1 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 27.8 percent, 74.2 percent and 18.9 percent.)

At the state level, students were most likely to move up, keep up or catch up in reading. Students were least likely to move up, keep up, or catch up in math.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 growth results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Proficiency: Districts & Schools

The 10 largest enrollment districts mirrored the statewide pattern of modest fluctuations in percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced.

At the state level, scores in every grade fluctuated less than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, proficiency for almost every grade level declined in almost all subjects. The exceptions were 8th and 9th grade math and 5th and 7th grade writing.

Growth: Districts & Schools

All the highest growth districts in the state were rural: Liberty, Edison 54, Ouray, Summit, Silverton, Kim Reorganized and Gilpin County. One of the districts with the highest average growth across subjects was Vilas, one of two districts facing the end of the state’s accountability clock.

The state’s lowest-growth districts or entities were also small — Aguilar, Hanover, West End, Las Animas and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

Two of the five highest-growth schools were in Denver, Steck Elementary and DSST:Byers. The others were Aspen Community Charter School, Vanguard High School in Cheyenne Mountain and Victory Prep Academy High State Charter School, authorized by CSI. All but Steck are charter schools.

The five lowest-growth schools in the state include two Pueblo 60 schools, Roncalli Middle School and Benjamin Franklin Elementary. The others were Juniper Ridge Community School in Grand Junction (a new “no-test, no-tech” school) and two Waldorf-inspired schools, Mountain Sage Community School in Poudre, and Mountain Song Community School, authorized by the Charter School Institute.

Race & Ethnicity

There continue to be significant gaps in the percentage of white students scoring proficient or advanced and the percentages of minority students doing so. The largest white/black gap was in math (32.4 percentage points), and the smallest was in writing (27.2 percentage points). The largest gap between white and Hispanic students was in reading (27.8 percentage points) and the smallest was in writing (27.1 percentage points).

In reading white students had the highest percentage of proficient or advanced students at 79.8 percent. Asian students had the highest percentages in writing (68.5 percent) and math (73.4 percent).

Percentages for other minority groups in the three subjects either remained the same or decreased statewide, although there were increases for some groups in some grades.

Special groups of students

Proficient and advanced percentages were lower for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, with the largest gap in seventh grade math (34.2 percentage points) and the smallest in third grade math (25.2 percentage points). Subsidized lunches are used as a proxy for poverty, albeit an imperfect one.

Percentages for English language learners classified as fluent English proficient increased in most tested grades on reading and writing, while math proficiency increased in four of eight tested grades. Improvement by grade was more mixed for students classified in two less-fluent categories.

The percentage of Title I students who scored proficient or advanced increased from 2013 in reading for grades 5, 7 and 8; in writing for grades 3, 6, 8 and 10 and in mathematics for grades 8 and 9.

The percentages of female students scoring proficient or advanced were higher than those for males in all three subjects.

Some 1,523,301 TCAP tests were given to approximately 507,700 students last spring.

Other tests taken but not counted

Students in grades five and eight took online science tests last spring, and 4th and 7th graders took online social studies tests. (High school seniors will take those tests this fall.)

Different science tests were given to 5th, 8th and 10th graders under CSAP and TCAP, and the social studies tests were new this year.

Scores on the 2014 tests, which are being calculated, won’t count when district accreditation ratings are set later this year.

Categories: Urban School News

Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 13:37

PUEBLO — Feeling confident in the work she had accomplished, Pueblo City Schools Superintendent Maggie Lopez announced her retirement in January.

Some of the city’s chronically low performing schools were improving. She’d built up many of the basic systems that a school district needs to operate, like new evaluations and streamlined curriculum across the city. The southern Colorado school district, one of the first to be labeled failing when the state’s accountability law took effect in 2010, had upward momentum.

“We’re at a point where we see the rollercoaster [of achievement] heading up,” Lopez said this spring. “It isn’t going to be easy. But it’s a good time to hand off the baton.”

But while the school system has gotten better since Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains.

And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new superintendent, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year.

“I have a fear with Maggie leaving, we’re going to lose some ground,” said Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know. I’ve seen it happen before with leadership changes.”

The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans like Slyhoff feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.

Steel City Turnaround

Pueblo has had rocky leadership transitions before — most notably, in 2005, when Pueblo’s former leader, Joyce Bales, a key figure in boosting Pueblo’s academic performance, left. Bales’ replacement, John Covington, got off to a tumultuous start with the city’s teachers union during tense contract negotiations.

Many teachers, principals, and observers privately believe that Covington, who left the district in 2009, never healed the rift between his administration and the city’s instructors, and that tension contributed to Pueblo’s academic losses.

Part of the reason the board hired Jones to replace Lopez was because they believed there could be a seamless handoff between the two.

“We cannot — we will not — miss a beat,” said Kathy DeNiro, the board’s president and former district administrator.

Jones, and the public, will have a clearer idea today on exactly what state Lopez left the district when the state releases the results from last spring’s standardized tests.

For now, Jones is carrying on the belief that Pueblo will beat the clock in time.

“I absolutely have a concern and feel a sense of urgency,” Jones told The Pueblo Chieftain. “But I’m also very confident, based on the conversations I’ve already had, that we will make the improvements we need to make in order to reset the clock and to make the progress we need to become accredited at the highest level of distinction.”

Pueblo solutions for Pueblo problems

The district did make many strides under Lopez — progress that can be seen at the Pueblo Academy of Arts.

Principal Karen Ortiz remembers when all six of the elementary schools that sent their students to the academy, formerly known as Pitts Middle School, were running different programs.

“Eighty percent of my students that first year were not at grade-level,” she said. “It was almost assured if you came here, you’d need remediation.”

At the school itself, there was no trust, the campus was dirty, and teachers had no guidance.

Today, the school is perhaps Pueblo City Schools’ greatest turnaround success story. Students enter classrooms in single file, shaking the hands of their teachers as they enter. Guests are also welcomed onto campus by a handshake. Instruction begins almost immediately and multiple hands rise to the air even on the most difficult of chemistry questions.

And the school, which was once labeled failing, is off the clock.

Ortiz credits the school’s music program, led by Lymon Bushkovski, as the foundation of her turnaround effort.

Amid all the chaos, “we had a shining star and it was our music program,” Ortiz said. Students from across the city would choose to attend Pitts for a chance to learn from Bushkovski. “That was the piece of hope we saw coming through.”

So, when given the opportunity two years ago to redesign the school’s model through a districtwide initiative to grant more autonomy to three of its struggling middle schools, Ortiz capitalized on the music department’s success and pushed to become a school for the arts, or the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

In addition to the new name and focus on arts integration in the classroom, the academy has made use of its new found freedoms by establishing daily collaboration time and school specific professional development for its teachers, extended its day, and will soon add primary grades.

Since Ortiz took over, the academy has accelerated student achievement. It’s climbed off the state’s accountability list completely. And Ortiz hopes her school’s continued academic rise will help push the district off the clock as well.

Ortiz’s efforts illustrate Superintendent Lopez’s two key strategies: alignment and innovation.

When Lopez started, the district had no formal evaluation tools for its teachers or principals, curriculum and instruction varied from school to school, and the district did not track lesson plans or have any strategic plan regarding professional development or school improvement.

Lopez has spent the bulk of her four years at the helm of Pueblo City Schools either creating or drawing together those functions of a school system. And, in the case of three of the city’s middle schools, she provided leaders to be set free of some central district policies, like at the academy.

But even with all the work Lopez and her team has done, there is little doubt among the locals here that the schools are still in trouble. Many community members in Pueblo believe that the key to progress is consistency — but without knowing how the transition will play out or how the state will intervene, if it does, guaranteeing that consistency is impossible.

“We have clearly demonstrated that Pueblo schools can achieve,” Slyhoff said. “But they have to stay the course.”

Slyhoff argues if the state has a solution for five years of chronic low performance, it should give the communities struggling to improve their schools the answer immediately rather than leaving them waiting on an uncertain future.

Do your homework
At an November meeting of the State Board of Education, state officials outlined possible scenarios of how a district that loses its accreditation could earn it back. Read their report here.

The state, which does not want Pueblo or any other school district to lose its accreditation, wants solutions to be based on the needs of the individual school districts. They regularly dispatch members of their school accountability team to troubled districts and, in an effort to focus more on schools, has created a voluntary turnaround network with the hope of accelerating achievement.

“[The accountability system] forces the local community to face the challenges of the local community,” said Keith Owen, deputy commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education and former Pueblo elementary school principal. “There’s no magic solution up here in Denver. What we want — we hope for — is local, contextualized solutions.”

But despite the state’s emphasis on helping Pueblo officials come up with their own paths forward, state officials’ involvement at all has generated some anger and skepticism.

“They can close our school, but they’re going to have to put the kids somewhere,” said DarciAnn Samples, a teacher at Roncalli.

Many possible paths

Technically, the state isn’t going to close any schools itself — it can’t, by law.

What state officials can do is strip the district of its accreditation and place conditions that the district must follow for the state seal of approval to be reinstated.

How long a failing district can go without accreditation is the most ambiguous portion of the state’s accountability law. Currently, state officials suggest the duration will depend on how quickly the state board and district come to an agreement on what the district needs to do. That could take minutes, but it also could take months.

There’s a broad range of possible conditions the state might place on a district to reinstate its accreditation. The district may be forced to close failing schools or turn them over to a charter network; the district might break apart into smaller (and hopefully more manageable) bureaucracies; or it could merge with a nearby high-performing district.

Another, potentially more likely scenario — especially for the city’s struggling middle schools — is that the state could ask the local school board to take specific actions around individual schools, such as closing them or handing them over to a charter operator.

“If I were the state, I’d send in the charter schools,” said board member Rose Holloway.

But that scenario is complicated by the fact that there seems to be little parent demand for the two local charter schools that are already available.

While there is a wait list at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, or PSAS, that school’s operator had to close its high school due to low enrollment numbers. And the K-8 school’s former leader, Natalie Allen, said a recent study suggested there was not enough demand to warrant an expansion.

And the Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy can fill another 300 desks, said its director and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Joe V. Aldaz.

The Chavez-Huerta charter network, Aldaz said, is still recovering from a public scandal that included accusations of embezzlement and nepotism by its founders. But he also believes that the lack of interest in charter schools in Pueblo, especially at the secondary level, has more to do with the city’s celebrated traditions at its four high schools.

“I can offer their children an associates degree when they graduate from here,” Aldaz said. “But I guess it’s more important about where the parents went to high school.”

In their own hands

While they wait to see how the leadership transition will play out and what, if any, action the state will take, some community members have taken matters into their own hands.

Cindy Ayala first became suspicious of the Pueblo’s schools were doing when young men and women couldn’t successfully fill out a job application at her family’s Mexican restaurant, Nachos.

Back-to-back community surveys in 2007 and 2010 commissioned by two different organizations proved her theory correct: there were problems in the city’s schools.

“Something needed to be done,” said Cindy Ayala, a local business owner and director of another Youth program, Trio Upward Bound. “And it needed to start before the students reached high school.”

So, with the help of two local organizations, the MyLife Program was launched. Today, 90 students participate. They go on monthly field trips to focus on different skills and they meet monthly at Pueblo Community College, in part to create awareness about options after high school.

Separately, the Pueblo branch of the United Way has launched its own mentorship program to work with at-risk youth.

“There was a big gap in our middle schools,” said Andrea Aragon, president of Pueblo’s United Way. “We wanted to make a difference.”

Aragon convinced a principal at Heaton Middle School on the city’s north side to allow mentors to work with 10 students. Within a year, those students’ failing grades dropped by 50 percent, Aragon said. One student has moved from below proficient on the state’s standardized test to advance. Another student, for the first time in his academic career, received no failing grades on his report card.

Fighting attitude

Almost since Colorado’s current school accountability process began in 2010, school leaders and observers from across the state have been critical of it.

The state, they argue, is asking the most disadvantaged to do more and often with less. If the adults can’t muster it, the students are the ones penalized, labeled as failing. And, they point out, the state does not have the capacity nor the authority to operate the nearly dozen districts that are near the end of the statutory timetable.

But Pueblo officials, unlike many in the community they serve, say they see their status as an opportunity to improve.

“We adopted a ‘we can do this’ attitude,” said Brenda Krage, a former assistant superintendent who left the district in June.

The public will get its first indication of whether Pueblo managed to pull itself out of the red zone or whether it’s down to one more year on the clock today, when the state releases the results from last years state standardized tests.

While the official state ratings based on those scores won’t be released until later this fall, careful observers will likely be able to read the tea leaves.

If Pueblo students have demonstrated even the slightest bit of improvement, that bodes well for the district officials who have worked tirelessly. But if scores are stagnant, or worse, if they drop, that means the hardest challenges are ahead.

But even with the difficulties and uncertainties, Suzanne Ethredge, president of Pueblo’s teachers union, believes that the district is scrappy enough to pull through.

“Pueblo is often the stepchild of the state,” she said. “Pueblo is used to having to fight for what we need — and we usually get it.”

The Pueblo City school board at an April meeting.
Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: UNO making a break; Karen Lewis' loot and preschool information

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 11:02

After this school year, the UNO Charter School Network will no longer be managed by the United Neighborhood Organization, the community organization that started it all, according to The Chicago Tribune. It is unclear what this will mean for the beleaguered charter school network, which runs 16 schools, mostly in Latino neighborhoods across Chicago. UNO and its charter school network have been embroiled in scandals over the past few years, with accusations of engaging in improper financial deals -- the organization recently settled an SEC investigation by agreeing to have an outside monitor.

The relationship between the charter school network and the community organization and the money that flowed between them has been questionable. Technically, the network was separate from the community organization, but the two shared the same CEO, Juan Rangel, and some of the same board members. Between 2009 and 2012, the network paid the parent organization $17 million, though it was unclear what the parent organization did for the network, according Chicago Magazine. Typically, charter school management companies take care of things like payroll and maintenance. In Spring of 2013, the charter school network’s board was overhauled as the group tried to convince the state to continue to provide funding. In a release sent to the Tribune, the UNO Charter School Network said parents and students will not be affected by a change in management.

2. Union salaries… Despite a promise that as the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, she would make no more than the highest paid teacher, Karen Lewis is roping in more than $200,000 a year, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Her Chicago Teachers Union salary of $136,890 is boosted by an additional $64,157 that she gets for being vice president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Lewis makes the argument that her CTU salary is based on a 12-month, 50-hour work week; whereas teacher salaries are based on a 208-day school year and a 6.5 hour workday, exclusive of lunch. (Under the union contract, some teachers, such as lead teachers, are paid for a slightly longer workday). An IFT spokeswoman says it is typical for the CTU president to hold an officer position in the statewide union and Lewis’ predecessor, Marilyn Stewart, also did. According to the CPS employee roster, the highest-paid CPS teacher is a special education teacher with a doctorate who works at Nancy Jefferson School, which is located inside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. She is paid $112,756.54 annually.

The issue came up because Lewis says she is considering running for mayor against Rahm Emanuel. (She’ll have to get used to her every step being news.) In related news, Lewis is starting a series of conversations on the state of the city. Her first will be moderated by journalist Walter Jacobson and will be at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, at the Beverly Woods Banquet Hall, 11532 S. Western Ave.

3. A little victory…Bronzeville activists are celebrating the word they got last week that the  Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into Mollison Elementary School and Dyett High School. In a complaint filed earlier this year, the activists charged that students’ civil rights were violated when Mollison became overcrowded because of a school closing and when Dyett students were forced to take physical education and art via online courses. The Sun Times quotes an Office of Civil Rights spokeswoman as saying that the announcement of an investigation only means that the department has determined it has jurisdiction and the allegations were filed in a timely manner.

This is just another chapter in the ongoing fight by Bronzeville activists against school closings. The Greater Bronzeville neighborhood has had the most schools closed over the past decade as public housing projects were taken down. Though the activists point to specific problems at Dyett and Mollison, they are generally against the movement to close schools and open new ones, mostly charter schools. What has happened to Dyett is particularly disturbing to them. Once a school seen to be on the upswing, Dyett’s phase out was announced in 2011. Dyett was the area’s last high school open to all students in an attendance boundary; unde the phase out, new students have had to travel to Phillips High School. Dyett is projected to have only 28 seniors next year, according to CPS. As the number of students has dwindled, it has become more difficult for the school to offer basic high school courses.

4. More information, please… Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett recently announced that  last year’s kindergartners had higher reading scores than the previous year’s kindergartners. They credited the improvements to the city’s improved and expanded pre-K programs under the mayor’s signature Ready to Learn! early childhood education initiative. The mayor says his next goal is to offer pre-K to 1,500 additional low-income 4-year-olds next year.

Ready to Learn! was announced in 2012 and didn’t really get off the ground until 2013, which means last year’s kindergartners wouldn’t have been affected by the changes. Also, fewer 4-year-olds were in CPS preschools last year than the previous year. The drop in enrollment was attributed to a new centralized enrollment process, which parents said they had trouble navigating, Catalyst reported. (Catalyst has requested additional data that would paint a clearer picture of the test-score increase.)

5. All charters…. NPR reports on the first day of school this week in New Orleans, the first district in the country to become all charter schools. Test scores are up and Kenneth Campbell, the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, says that is extraordinary. Schools “were in, in many ways, an academic wasteland prior to Katrina. ... there was no accountability,” he says. About 20 percent of charter schools in New Orleans are rated a D or an F, among the worst schools in the state, according to the NPR report. Physics teacher Davina Allen argues that it is a false system because schools are competing for students.

Only about 14 percent of CPS students attend charter schools currently, but more charters are coming on line. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others no doubt will be watching New Orleans closely.



Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Small Colorado Springs private school gets a donation

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 08/14/2014 - 10:08

Steel City Turnaround: Part 2

Despite efforts, Pueblo's middle schools, like Roncalli, continue to fail. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Big Changes

A $30,000 donation from a Woodland Park business owner is the biggest thing to happen to Colorado Springs Christian School in years. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

Youth Violence

A month after officials reported progress at the Spring Creek Youth Services Center, a missing pencil ended in what police called a riot. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

K5 Assessments

More than 100 districts will pilot the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment in kindergarten classrooms this year. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


Parents may be surprised to find their kids didn't do as well on the new science and social studies test as they expected. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Combating Crime

Air Force Academy Superintendent Michelle Johnson and other leaders pledged Wednesday to combat a culture that allowed star athletes to commit sex crimes. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenges

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 08/13/2014 - 20:04

PUEBLO — When Tristan Smith was in the sixth and seventh grade at Roncalli Middle School, he often found it difficult to concentrate in class.

Students roamed the hallways, picked fights, and wandered freely through their classrooms. He also found it challenging to concentrate on material that seemed far above his and his classmates’ skill level.

“They taught us some stuff, but it seemed really advanced,” said Smith, who is entering his sophomore year at South High School. “Students didn’t know what they were doing. They were never on task. They were also talking — not really doing anything.”

By the time Smith transferred from Roncalli to a local charter school for eighth grade, he said, the chaos almost seemed normal.

But it quickly became evident to Smith just how far behind he was compared to his new classmates after his transfer to the Chavez Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy.

This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge.

“We were neglecting that age group,” said Kathy DeNiro, president of the city’s school board who also served in various administrative roles in the school district before retiring in 2007.

Steel City Turnaround

Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state. (Slightly less than half of the city’s elementary and K-8 schools are considered failing, while all four of the city’s high schools are in the safe zone.)

As the state’s accountability clock ticks toward state sanctions for Pueblo, officials are working toward improving its most troubled campuses by offering both additional central support and autonomy to principals.

If the district is able to improve its middle schools, its chances of avoiding state intervention rise significantly. But Pueblo’s recent attempts to better those schools suggest that the task is complex and delicate. The district’s last try, which did yield one popular and high-performing option for Pueblo families, also inadvertently set the stage for the district’s struggles at Roncalli.

And now, according to recent third-party evaluations commissioned by the district and obtained by Chalkbeat, Pueblo’s lowest-performing middle schools still have a long way to go before they can produce the culture and instruction they will need to boost student achievement.

School officials say they just need time, but given the state’s looming deadline — Pueblo might have just a year to significantly boost student test scores or risk intervention — it’s time they may not have.

Building one school, dooming another

Before Roncalli was the state’s lowest-performing middle school, it was one of the city’s most respected.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaKathy DeNiro, Pueblo City Schools’ board president, congratulates the East High School basketball team for taking the men’s 4A state championship in April. DeNiro was a former principal and administrator for the district.

Sandwiched between two booming middle- and high-income neighborhoods on the city’s south side, the middle school regularly achieved in academics and extracurricular activities from the 1990s to the mid-2000s. At the time, about half of Roncalli’s students came from low-income homes, a share that was about 12 percentage points below the district average.

But despite Roncalli’s successes, by 2007, Pueblo City School officials began to worry about an enrollment dip at the middle school level system-wide. Parents who sent their children to the district’s elementary and high schools looked for alternatives for the middle grades.

So the district hatched a plan to lure students back to public middle schools by creating a high-performing, rigorous, and uncompromising program that would appeal to families. In the fall of 2008, the district rebooted a middle school in one of Pueblo’s poorest neighborhoods that had dwindling enrollment and chronically low scores on state tests. The new school, led by principal Julie Shue, would have a no-nonsense culture, technology in every student’s hands, and a robust international curriculum.

As part of the process of relaunching the school, now known as Corwin International Magnet School, the district redrew its neighborhood school boundaries. Low-income families who had been zoned for Corwin were now sent to either Roncalli or Pitts middle schools, which at that point had less experience educating low-income students.

While Corwin was set up to absorb the neighborhood’s poorer Latino students — and did for its first year — students from more affluent families who had previously attended Roncalli and Pitts who were drawn to Shue’s vision quickly filled the school’s seats.

The result was a rapid influx of low-income students to Roncalli, a demographic shift that often presents huge challenges for schools. While Roncalli saw an overall drop in its enrollment, its share of students poor enough to be eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch jumped 30 percentage points in two years.

Today, 80 percent of Roncalli’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Corwin, it’s half that rate, or 41 percent.

“When Corwin [became a magnet school] it caused a significant demographic change at Roncalli,” said Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo teacher’s union.

And teachers weren’t prepared for that change, union and district officials now concede.

“The piece that might have been missing was — we didn’t prepare the communities well,” said Brenda Krage, the district’s former assistant superintendent.

A 2010 review of the school from the consultant group SchoolWorks bears out that conclusion. The consultants reported that they found little evidence of advance planning to welcome the new students arriving at the school.

That meant two things, the report found. First, tensions developed between Roncalli’s original group of students and the new arrivals from Corwin, leading to escalating behavioral and anger problems.

And secondly, “not all teachers [had] expectations of high levels of student achievement for all students,” the report states. “A lack of rigor and lowered expectations for students to perform at high levels are evident across the school.”

Those deficiencies soon showed up in students’ test scores. Reading scores for low-income students at Roncalli, for example, dropped about 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2009 and their proficiency rates have continued to drop each year, except for a brief bounce in 2010. Last school year, only about one in three poor students of color who attends Roncalli could read at grade level.

Meanwhile, the poor students who remained at Corwin through the transformation to a magnet school benefited greatly from the new economically diverse formation of the school. Reading test scores for black and Hispanic students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch skyrocketed nearly 40 percentage points and remain high. In 2013, eight in 10 low-income black and Hispanic students at Corwin, about 40 percent of the population, read at or above grade level.

A study in contrasts

Class passing time at Corwin is a quiet and orderly process. Boys in pressed white shirts and ties and girls in neat skirts walk in single file following traffic lanes down the middle of the hallway.

“Everything that happens at Corwin International is deliberate and on purpose,” the school’s principal Shue said.

Shue began to plan all the details of the school about eight months before it opened, travelling the country to observe the best schools and bring their methods back to Pueblo.

Those ideas included a laptop for every student, an International Baccalaureate curriculum, and, perhaps Corwin’s key strategy, mixing students of different skills in the same classroom.

Shue takes the mixing so seriously that, during the school’s second year, she reassigned groups of students to particular lunch periods in order to end the self-segregation between the new Corwin students and the old in the cafeteria she had observed the year before.

There are no prerequisites or entrance exams required to enroll at Corwin, despite what parents believe. But there is a waitlist and an admissions lottery, which gives slight preference to students in the neighborhood. And parents are required to volunteer a dozen hours at the school each semester, potentially dissuading low-income families strapped for time from applying.

Shue believes all students can achieve, “especially in Pueblo.” But she’s not ready now — or if ever — to expand her program past the 650 students it serves today.

“[Corwin] has the perfect balance,” she said. “Bigger does not equal better.”

She just hopes that, for now, her school is an asset to the large school district as it attempts to leap off the state’s accountability watch list.

“Change is one of those things we have to do on purpose,” she said, reflecting on the lessons she learned from re-opening Corwin and a potential lesson for the district.

Roncalli or bust

While students at Corwin reap the benefits of sustained leadership and close attention to the details of school culture, those at Roncalli have floundered under constant leadership turnover — a new principal has been assigned to the school each year since 2008 — and staff who were ill-prepared for the sudden influx of high-needs students.

Despite Roncalli’s poor ratings and weak school culture, Geno Duran is adamant: his children will attend Roncalli Middle School, just as he did. Family traditions are paramount in Pueblo, one of them being their schools. Generations of families have passed through the same hallways of the same campuses for decades.

“It’s convenient and close,” Duran said. More importantly, “I want them to have the same experiences I did.”

But the Roncalli Duran knew in the early 1990s is long gone. At least, the school’s tradition of academic excellence is.

In fact, the Roncalli Duran and his son knew just last year is gone as well.

That’s because part of the school’s innovation plan approved two years ago by the district and State Board of Education called for a completely new teaching staff.

Any staff member who wanted to reapply for their job could. Most didn’t.

Marci Imes was one of the few teachers who returned.

Originally hired for the 2013-14 school year as the dean, Imes was reassigned and became the school’s assistant principal for instruction. When students return to Roncalli on Thursday, she’ll be their new principal, the school’s sixth leader in as many years.

To Imes, Roncalli has made a night-and-day transition in four years: The school has seen an influx of extra cash from state dollars meant to implement its innovation program, as well as grants for its new science and technology focus. Students are more engaged. The new staff is dedicated — and for the most part staying put. The instruction is strong. And a renewed culture is growing.

Some things have not yet improved. The school had more suspensions between Aug. 1 and May 4 than any of the other middle schools. Nearly a third of Roncalli’s 539 students were on average suspended twice for a total of 374 out of school suspensions.

And according to a 2014 review of the school by SchoolWorks, the school still lacks clear goals around student achievement and expectations for students, among other issues.

Classrooms are not structured for learning, the report concluded. When learning does happen, it’s usually at a lower level than what would be needed to push the students forward. Teachers are being asked to cover each others classes during planning time giving up valuable collaboration time.  Parent involvement is still low. And there is no consistent policy to to make sure the school’s neediest students.

District leaders say the school and its new staff need more time.

Imes, who was one of the architects behind the school’s innovation plan, is confident that within three years — the timeline the school is using to roll out its science, technology, engineering, and math program — student test scores will improve.

“This is not a one and done,” Imes said. “Becoming a full-fledged STEM school doesn’t happen overnight.”

Complete system failure

While a dramatic demographic shift challenged Roncalli especially, there were far greater systemic problems at work at the city’s other middle schools.

By 2010, when the state introduced its accountability watch list, the city’s middle schools had hit an all time low. Five of the city’s six district-run middle schools were ranked among the state’s lowest-performing. Only Corwin, with its many middle-class families, escaped that designation.

Like at Roncalli, the school district asked school consultant SchoolWorks to identify the symptoms of the district’s low academic performance.

Their findings addressed everything from culture to instruction to professional development of teachers at several of the city’s middle schools.

The results were the same across the school system: Pueblo’s middle schools were toxic.

At Pitts Middle School, in 2009, some teachers did not believe that all children could learn. At Freed Middle School, the principal did not provide teachers feedback after classroom visits. At Risley Middle School, bullying was rampant.

Inside Pueblo’s middle schools
As part of its reporting, Chalkbeat obtained reports by a third party commissioned by Pueblo City Schools and the Colorado Department of Education that diagnosed systemic successes and failures in its middle schools in 2009 and 2010. The district had follow up reports on several of its schools completed in 2014. You can view them here.

“We had a lot of problems,” said Karen Ortiz, principal of the Pueblo Academy of the Arts, then known as Pitts.

For the last four years Pueblo officials — and some community members of the this Southern Colorado town — have worked to remedy the ills of their middle schools.

Today, the city’s schools have seen mixed results. Two middle schools, Heaton and Pitts, have moved into the state’s safe zone. A third, Risley, is close.

“I hate to say this, but there was a deficient attitude here,” said Charlotte Macaluso, Risley Middle School principal. “Teachers believed no matter what they did, it wouldn’t make a difference. But there’s hope now.”

Updated reports from SchoolWorks, completed last spring, show some improvement in school culture across the district. But instruction, leadership, and quality professional development of teachers are still lacking in critical ways, according to the reports.

Before her retirement, Superintendent Maggie Lopez said the district’s summer professional development for teachers and principals would be centered around improving many of the weaknesses school consultants found, especially concerning instruction.

Hope, not time, runneth over

Jeremy Duran, Geno’s son, sees some of those efforts bearing fruit at Roncalli. This year, fewer students ran in the hallways, he said. There were fewer distractions in the classroom, which meant teachers were no longer yelling as much. And last year he had just one social studies teacher — not three, as the year before.

Math and science were still a struggle for the eighth grader, but he was able to join his peers in mainstream classes rather than smaller classes for students with learning disabilities.

“I’ve made more friends,” he said.

Jeremy is aware of the school’s failing status. “If we don’t get better, the school is going to shut down,” he said.

While no officials have publicly suggested a full shutdown, the Duran family is hopeful the school will make enough strides to stave off drastic changes so that closure could never even be a possibility

After all, the Duran family still has two more students to send through Roncalli: Anthony, a sixth grader, and Kayla, a fourth grader.

And he plans to send them there no matter what happens with the state.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” the Duran patriarch, Geno, said.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaGeno Duran, right, with his Roncalli Middle School students, Jeremy, left, and Anthony.
Categories: Urban School News

Science, social studies test results could be a surprise

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 08/13/2014 - 19:20

Next month some Colorado parents will get the news that their kids perhaps didn’t score as well on science and social studies tests as Mom and Dad might have expected — an experience likely to be repeated on a much larger scale next year after new online language arts and math tests launch.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved “cut scores” for the new online science tests that were given in fifth and eighth grades and the social studies exams taken by fourth and seventh graders last spring.

The cut scores will be used to classify student performance into four achievement levels.

The science tests aren’t comparable to previous TCAP science tests, and no statewide social studies tests were given in the past. But new achievement-level labels and significantly smaller percentages of students in the top two levels may be disconcerting to teachers and parents who are used to the patterns of TCAP test results.

“We are making a shift in terms of our expectations” towards making students college and career ready, said state testing director Joyce Zurkowski. “This is very different from what we had under CSAP and TCAP,” whose expectations she described as merely “good enough.”

Board member Angelika Schroeder agreed. “What we are calling proficient [now] is not our goal” in the future, she said.

The new state testing system will have four performance levels called distinguished command, strong command, moderate command and limited command. Those will replace the TCAP classifications of advanced, proficient, partially proficient and unsatisfactory.

The science and social studies tests will be scored on a scale of 300-900. The Department of Education is still fine-tuning its final report on last spring’s scores, but based on the cut scores adopted by the board, performance levels are expected to look like this:

  • Above about 800 – Distinguished command
  • About 700 to 800 – Strong command
  • About 550 to 700 – Moderate command
  • Below 550 – Limited command

The four levels don’t compare to the four TCAP classifications, because the tests and the content standards on which they’re based are different. CDE officials expect fewer students will be in the top two levels under the new system initially. (Read descriptions of the four new levels.)

For example, CDE projects that 32 percent of students will be classified as distinguished or strong on the spring 2014 eighth grade science assessment. On the last eighth grade TCAP science tests, just over half of students were classified as proficient or advanced. (See the projected percentage of students at each level on each test in this chart, and check how those compare to eighth grade science results on other tests here.

Students in the top two categories will be considered on track for college and career readiness in the subject. Zurkowski said students with moderate command will need additional instructional support to get on track, and students with limited command will need extensive academic support.

Similar adjustments in scoring, classification and reporting of test results will be made after new CMAS language arts and math tests are given online next spring. (Those tests are based on the Common Core State Standards and were developed by the PARCC testing consortium.)

As has happened in other states, CDE officials expect a drop in achievement levels on the language arts and math tests.

“There could be a drop of up to 20 to 30 percentage points,” said Zurkowski. “We are going to need to work on communication” with parents and the public.

Schroeder agreed, saying that while districts and schools can explain testing changes to parents, the board and CDE have a responsibility to explain testing changes to the general public.

The board approved the recommended cut points on a 6-1 vote. Member Deb Scheffel voted no after expressing concerns that the cut points created “an un-level playing field,” partly because the complicated wording of some questions. “Bad cut scores are bad cut scores.”

The scoring and classification system was developed by 47 educator panelists selected by the testing company Pearson and by CDE. The group included 17 social studies experts and 16 in science. Panelists came from rural, suburban and urban districts around the state and from traditional and charter schools.

The department plans to release the elementary and middle school science and social studies test results to districts in mid-September. Districts and schools are responsible for distributing results to parents. High school seniors will take science and social studies this fall – the first time that 12th graders have had to take any statewide standardized tests.

Results from the social studies and science tests won’t be used in state accreditation ratings of districts and schools until 2016.

Categories: Urban School News

New kindergarten assessments voluntary this year, mandatory next year

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 08/13/2014 - 17:17

On a recent Wednesday morning, Lori Sabian asked the two dozen teachers and principals seated before her what they had heard about Teaching Strategies GOLD, the early childhood assessment she would be training them on for the rest of the day.

Sensing hesitation, she added a reassurance: “This is a room of truth,” she said.

Then one teacher piped up with the advice she’d been given: “Run, run run!”

It was by no means the only opinion about the online tool, but it summed up the trepidation that many kindergarten teachers feel as they prepare to pilot the “school readiness assessment” this year in advance of mandatory statewide implementation next year.

This broad implementation — one component of a six-year-old school reform law — comes against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about the state’s “testing burden” as well as questions about the security of student data. It also unfolds on the heels of new K-3 literacy assessments required under the READ Act.

Even the educators who are excited about using Teaching Strategies GOLD to tailor instruction or provide better feedback to parents admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the time-consuming task ahead of them. One teacher at the recent training in Evans asked Sabian for something of a pep talk as she wondered how she would assess the nearly 40 students in her two half-day kindergarten classes.

“Can you just say something to keep me positive?” she asked.

Others in the room were more circumspect.

“We’ve always done assessment. We’ve always done data collection. And this just feels like a nice model that pulls everything together,” said Julie Claeys, assistant elementary principal and K-12 assessment coordinator for Union Colony Preparatory School in Greeley.

“Yes, it’s going to be a lot of work to learn but I’m really grateful that we have this first year where messing up isn’t fatal.”

Where did it come from?

Across the country, states are increasingly adopting school readiness assessments, also called Kindergarten Entry Assessments. In Colorado, the mandate was born out of a major piece of school reform legislation passed in 2008—the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, or CAP4K.

The color bar system used in TS GOLD indicates what age most students are expected to achieve various developmental tasks. Purple represents what kids should know in kindergarten.

The law required that all kindergarteners have an “individualized readiness plan” informed by a valid, reliable and research-based school readiness assessment. While the law included no funding for the assessments, the state is using $1.2 million from its $44 million federal Race to the Top grant to cover implementation costs.

For state leaders, school readiness assessments like TS GOLD represent a more effective way to track and address the many domains of child development. These include social-emotional, cognitive, language and physical development, as well as academics such as literacy and math.

“If we have a great assessment system that addresses the whole child that way, I think it’s going to inform practice and start to give kids a better foundation,” said Sharon Triolo-Moloney, director of the Office of Early Learning and School Readiness at the Colorado Department of Education.

Claeys described the information provided by TS GOLD, saying, “It’s like having an [Individual Education Plan] for every kid,” referring to plans for students with special needs.

Unlike other kinds of standardized tests, most kids won’t even know they’re “taking” a school readiness assessment like TS GOLD. That’s because it involves a year-long process of observation and documentation of what students are doing in the normal order of their school day. This might mean counting to 100, retelling the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” resolving a squabble with peers, or using a quiet voice when visiting the library.

For the most part, the burden of completing the assessment rests on teachers, who will be responsible for taking regular notes, photos and videos, uploading them to the TS GOLD platform and categorizing them appropriately. Three times a year—around Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—there are “progress checkpoints” where teachers determine how students compare to other children of the same age.

Because it’s a system that punishes procrastinators, Sabian and other speakers at the training frequently warned teachers not to let data—say, photos of student work or sticky notes describing a teacher-student interaction—pile up without being entered online.

“Don’t let it stockpile,” said Emily Kielmayer, an early adopter from the Garfield School District, recounting her own trials with entering lots of data at the last minute.

At the same time, she talked enthusiastically about how TS GOLD helped her work with struggling students who’d simply scored zeroes on other assessments. With TS GOLD’s birth-kindergarten continuum, it was easier to find a jumping off point for instruction.

Gradual roll-out

Both last year and this year are voluntary phase-in years for TS GOLD, with an emphasis on experimentation and flexibility. For example, teachers can focus on just three or four of the nine developmental areas covered by TS GOLD, or assess only a handful of students instead of the whole class.

School readiness assessments under consideration

  • Riverside Early Assessments of Learning (REAL)
  • Work Sampling System (WSS)
  • Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP)
  • Kindergarten Early Learning Scale (K-ELS)

State officials estimate that nearly 1,200 teachers in 103 of the state’s 178 school districts will use TS GOLD this year. Starting next year, all Colorado kindergartners must be assessed, though leaders in some districts are hoping to be circumvent that requirement. Last winter, the conservative-leaning Jeffco Public Schools board of education voted to seek a waiver from TS GOLD’s use in  kindergarten.

While the state didn’t grant that waiver, district administrators are waiting to see what other school readiness assessments might be approved in advance of next year’s mandatory implementation. Four other assessments are currently under consideration, but a final decision isn’t expected from the State Board of Education until sometime this fall.

“I know there’s a big push for something that’s easier,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.

Still, she doubted that quicker, easier assessments would look at the whole child in the comprehensive way that TS GOLD or similar assessments do.

As is typical for online assessment systems, TS GOLD charges a per-student fee—it’s around $9 in Colorado. This year, like last year, the state will cover those costs completely in implementing districts. Next year, the state will cover at least 60 percent of the costs; the following year, that number will drop to around 30 percent.

Many veteran users in the state

While TS GOLD may be new to most kindergarten teachers, a fair chunk of Colorado’s preschool workforce is already familiar with the assessment. That’s because it’s been used for two years, and sometimes longer, in classrooms funded by the Colorado Preschool Program or CPP. (Another approved tool—the Child Observation Record or COR—is used in about 9 percent of CPP classrooms.)

Ilona Witty, director of early childhood in the Salida School District, said her staff has used TS GOLD for five years to assess the district’s preschool students and the last three years for its toddlers. It was stressful at first, but the early childhood team gradually learned shortcuts that made the process more efficient, she said. Getting iPads helped too.

In Denver Public Schools, where around 300 kindergarten teachers will pilot TS GOLD with at least five students each this year, administrators believe preschool teachers will be a good resource for the kindergarten adopters. District officials also say they’ve focused on the purpose of the assessment at trainings this summer.

“We talked about the why…We didn’t just talk about here’s another test and here’s how you give it,” said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early education.

“It’s a tool that helps…teachers really understand development and how it happens,” she said.

While Witty knows some observers worry that TS GOLD has a monopoly in the Colorado market, she’s believes the assessment is a good one that provides valuable feedback about the district’s youngest students.

“It drives our planning, it drives our ordering. It drives our professional development,” she said. “Of course they’re making a ton of money…If the product wasn’t good, I’d probably be more up in arms”

Administrators in Salida like the assessment system so much they aren’t stopping with kindergarten. In the coming years, first, and second grade classrooms will begin using a new version of TS GOLD that’s designed for children through third grade. The existing version and the one coming out for older children align with Common Core State Standards.

Sharing the data

Among the benefits of TS GOLD that most excited teachers at the Evans training was its potential to give parents more information about their children’s progress and better engage them as educational partners. Kielmeyer noted that she’d replaced report cards and parent-teacher conference forms with reports generated by TS GOLD.

“I had the best parent-teacher conferences I’ve had in the last 10 years,” she said. “I had boxes of tissues because I had parents crying tears of joy. They were just amazed at what I had to share.”

While parents have the option of asking that their child not be photographed or videotaped as part of TS GOLD, Kielmeyer and others say parents often become more receptive as they learn how those types of data are used to document progress. In fact, teachers can even invite parents to contribute to the assessment using documentation they’ve collected.

In addition to replacing report cards, Kielmeyer  said that TS GOLD allowed the district to replace some of its former assessments because GOLD provided the same information. In Denver Public Schools, Caldwell said a committee is in the process of deciding whether such overlaps warrant the elimination of some assessments.

One unanswered question about TS GOLD is how the data will be used at the state level. Currently, aggregate preschool data from TS GOLD and the other approved assessment is collected through the state’s Results Matter system. A summary is published in the annual Colorado Preschool Program legislative report.

At least initially, Triolo-Moloney said there won’t be a comparable report for the state’s kindergarten cohort.

“Everybody’s chomping at the bit for that,” she said. “But we’re trying so hard to not do that because we really want teachers to be free to practice this thing.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Big bond on the ballot for Boulder schools

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 08/13/2014 - 08:46

Steel City Turnaround

Pueblo City Schools is the largest district to near the end of the state's timeline to improve or face interventions. But it was once touted as a reform "miracle." Chalkbeat looks at what happened, in the first in a three part series. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Setting the stage for election season

Boulder Valley's school board ok'ed a move to put a $576 million dollar bond for schools on the ballot. ( Daily Camera )

Scantron Skirmish

The battle over testing has opened on a new front: the AP U.S. history test. And it's coming to Colorado. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Outside the classroom

In a look at what kids learn from play, NPR takes on a classic recess activity: marbles. ( nprEDU via KUNC )

Categories: Urban School News

As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 08/12/2014 - 20:04

PUEBLO — There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards.

“My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.”

But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long:

Why has Bessemer Academy had three principals in as many years? Why was her son shuffled between two different teachers this school year? Why can’t the adults in the building control the students’ behavior?

She also has questions that reach beyond Bessemer’s four walls:

What are Pueblo officials doing about the school’s state designation as a “turnaround” school, a marker that gives Bessemer two more years to improve or face state intervention? What happens if the school doesn’t make the deadline?

“What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked.

Turnaround tension

Williamson’s question is shared by many parents in Pueblo. A third of the public schools in the city are failing, according to state ratings.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, Pueblo could pose the first big test of Colorado’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores — which will be released later this week — reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of educators and parents like Williamson. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

Individual schools that don’t improve in time may be asked to replace their principal and teaching staff, be turned over to a charter operator, or be closed altogether.

But some observers question whether the state has the political will or the capacity to enact dramatic changes in districts like Pueblo — and nearly a dozen others — that are close to the deadline.

In Denver, questions about the state’s ability to impose changes come mostly from people who want to see the state step in. But in Pueblo, those questions come from a deep-seated skepticism of outsiders and a belief that local problems call for local solutions.

Steel City Turnaround

Even as a small but influential group of Pueblo community leaders have recognized the scale of the challenge and are doing what they can outside of school walls to improve student achievement, they remain resistant to seeing the state get involved. In fact, they are skeptical that the state’s intervention would bring any improvements.

“If the state has all the answers, why are they waiting for five years?” Rod Slyhoff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, asked. “Why didn’t they just come in year one?”

District officials and city leaders claim they’re on the right path to beat the clock. And state officials agree that beating the clock is possible. Pueblo has already climbed the state’s rankings for two consecutive years.

“It is within striking distance,” said Keith Owen, the state’s deputy commissioner of education and a former Pueblo elementary school principal.

But following the retirement of the district’s superintendent in June, many in Pueblo fear that a leadership transition might trigger a backward slide just as the state’s deadline closes in.

This spring and summer, to better understand how a school system that primarily serves low-income and Latino students and its city are affected by and driven to improve under immense pressure of a ticking clock, Chalkbeat interviewed dozens of students, teachers, parents, district leaders, and observers in Pueblo. We also reviewed dozens of public documents and district data that detail the conditions of the city’s neediest schools.

Over the next three days, we will explore the bureaucracy still struggling with change revealed in those interviews and documents. While Pueblo’s school improvement efforts have been undertaken by a group of well-intentioned individuals fighting against the odds of high poverty and shrinking budgets, not everyone is on the same page.

District officials and teachers are both mentally and physically worn.

And several of the district’s neediest schools still lack consistent quality instruction and the robust school culture that turnaround experts believe is necessary to drive student achievement.

As Bessemer goes, so goes the city

The academic rise and fall of Bessemer Academy parallels that of the Pueblo City Schools system as whole.

In the early 2000s, Bessemer, a kindergarten through 8 public school in one of the poorest parts of this Southern Colorado town, was nothing short of a modern education reform miracle, observers said.

Results from the state’s first-ever round of third-grade reading exams found, in 1997, barely one in 10 students was reading at grade level. But by 2000, the percentage of students that passed the fourth-grade test had increased; seven in 10 students tested at grade level.

The school headed into the new century either meeting or beating the state’s average on its standardized tests. And everyone from Gov. Bill Owens to President George W. Bush was paying attention to the little Southern Colorado school district that could — and did.

As Bessemer held its significant academic gains and other schools’ scores also rose, district officials were invited to Denver and Washington, D.C., to share the secret to their formula.

Then-superintendent Joyce Bales told the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002 that Pueblo’s success was based on its focused mission and high quality teachers. She also cited teachers’ professional development tools, organizational systems, and their use of data to inform their instruction. The district also used a literacy program called Lindamood-Bell, a renowned and expensive phonics-based program.

Less than a decade later, Bales was gone and, according to present-day Pueblo officials, so were all of her systems and the Lindamood-Bell program.

New leadership and budget cuts forced Pueblo City Schools to abandon the literacy program and instead chase instructional grants haphazardly.

Today, 46 percent of the district’s students are reading on grade level and 28 percent write proficiently, according to the state’s literacy exams. (Comparatively, the state averages about 70 percent of students reading at grade level and 55 percent of student writing at grade level.)

It’s a big improvement from the late 1990s, when only 12 percent of its fourth grade students were reading at grade-level and just 2 percent could write on that level. But it’s also a big drop from Bales’ heyday.

And neither Bessemer nor the district — which has not experienced any radical demographic shifts since the early 2000s — are meeting the state’s expectation for student growth, the measure of how much a student learned from year to year compared to his or her academic peers.

The most conservative interpretation is that growth is flat. Students who have been designated as below proficient on state tests are staying behind. And those who are considered proficient are barely hanging on.

At Bessemer, while some classes of students are posting slow but steady growth, others fluctuate every year, moving between minimal and fairly large gains.

So close, yet so far away

Right now, Pueblo is just three points shy of the 52 points out of 100 on the state’s annual school review scoring system to get itself off the state’s accountability watch list.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaPueblo City Schools board members Mike Colucci, left, and Kathy DeNiro and Superintendent Maggie Lopez recite the school district’s mission before a school board meeting in April. School officials are confident they’re on the right path to beat the state’s accountability clock.

And Pueblo officials are confident their efforts have been enough to push the district across that threshold, if not this year, by 2015.

“We’ve flown through some turbulence — but we continue to fly,” Superintendent Maggie Lopez, who retired at the end of June, told State Board of Education members in April. “Achievement is beginning to take a turn.”

The district, officials told the State Board, has aligned their standards and created a single instructional roadmap for all of its schools. They’ve instituted interim assessments to monitor student progress. Principals are now trained to be leaders, not managers. Teachers are working together in communities, not isolated in their classrooms. And a team of district administrators has been created to respond directly to individual classroom needs.

“As a district we are far more timely and responsive to meeting the schools’ needs than we have ever been,” said Brenda Krage, then the assistant superintendent of learning services.

The district has also put an emphasis on school choice. It’s closed some low-performing schools — mostly for budgetary, not academic, reasons. And it has created a path for students on the city’s East side to access the International Baccalaureate curriculum at each grade.

District leaders have also elected to provide more autonomy to three of Pueblo’s most troubled middle schools by designating them “innovation schools.”

A 2008 state law created the innovation schools designation. Schools granted innovation status are freed from many central administration policies such as budget rules, curriculum mandates, and teacher contracts. Architects of the law believed that granting such freedoms could accelerate academic achievement.

But early anecdotal reports from those schools — the Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International Innovation Academy, and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts (formerly known as Pitts Middle School) — suggest that results are mixed.

And if third grade reading scores from last spring’s standardized tests are any indication on whether Pueblo’s efforts have paid off — and, depending on who you ask, they are or are not — the news isn’t good for Pueblo. As a whole, the district saw its scores drop by more than 3 percentage points, while the state remained relatively flat.

At Bessemer Academy there was a double digit drop.

According to reading scores released in May, just one in three of the kids at the school can read at grade level.

Watching, waiting

With those dismal academic results and increasing discipline and leadership issues at Bessemer, the Williamson family’s frustration is rising.

This year, the school is getting its fifth new principal since 2007. At the last awards assembly she and her husband attended, Williamson said, it took 20 minutes for the teachers and administrators to gain the student’s attention. And there appears to be no clear discipline protocol. As punishment for acting out, one teacher made students make her coffee, missing valuable lessons.

Williamson would consider sending her children to a different — better — school. But with only one car for her family of five, that’s not possible.

And Jacob, the third grader, would be devastated, she said. He thinks the test scores don’t reflect how hard the kids are working.

“They think the school is dumb,” he said. “But if they were to watch a class for a full day, they’d see how much we learn and pay attention.”

Like the local leaders who want to keep the solutions local, Jacob believes that his and his classmate’s hard work will eventually be clear. But Williamson is more worried about the work that school officials are doing — and, like the state officials who are watching Pueblo closely, she is anxiously waiting to see whether the work will pay off.

“I know there has been a lot of turnover as far as the staff and principal goes,” Williamson said. But she doesn’t think those reasons are excuses for the school’s struggles. “I can’t think of anything that could justify it.”

Tomorrow, Chalkbeat Colorado will explore how Pueblo’s strategy to improve one school in part created the state’s lowest performing middle school.

Categories: Urban School News

Another skirmish shaping up in testing wars

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 08/12/2014 - 17:02

Some testing critics are taking aim at a new Advanced Placement United States history program, and the the Republican chair of the State Board of Education is bringing the debate to Colorado.

Paul Lundeen of Monument has presented a resolution for consideration at the board’s session this Thursday (see text here). Lundeen told Chalkbeat Colorado, “Some concerns had been expressed to me by constituents. My research suggests that a resolution delaying is appropriate at this time.”

The proposed resolution reads, “The new APUSH Framework reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects. … The Framework presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history.” (APUSH is an acronym for Advanced Placement United States History.)

The resolution also claims the AP framework conflicts with state content standards and asks that roll-out of the new program be delayed “for at least a year.”

An Aug. 1 Huffington Post column by Patte Barth traces the flap to a March paper published by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank.

The hue and cry since has been picked up by commentators for the National Review and on conservative websites such as and Glenn Beck’s website. Last weekend the Republican National Committee passed as resolution opposing the new history framework, and the controversy also has popped up in Georgia and Texas.

Because College Board President David Coleman was a leading figure in creation of Common Core State Standards, commentators have tried to draw a link between the new AP program and Common Core, a focus of conservative worries for more than a year. (The College Board runs both the Advanced Placement program and the SAT tests.)

In an email sent this week to members of the state board, Coleman wrote, “People who are worried that AP U.S. History students will not need to study our nation’s founders need only take one look at this exam to see that our founders are resonant throughout.”

Because of public concern, Coleman said the College Board was taking the “unprecedented action” of releasing a full sample exam (see it here). He added, “We will soon release a clarified version of the course framework to avoid any further confusion.”

Read a defense of the framework in this June article by Lawrence Charap, director of AP curriculum and content development. See the full framework here and a College Board FAQ here.

The AP American history class is not a part of high school for most Colorado students. According to Department of Education data, 5,568 students took the class in 2012-13, about 4.5 percent of the 121,352 high school juniors and seniors enrolled that year.

Discussion of the resolution is on the board’s Thursday afternoon agenda, after results of the 2014 TCAP tests are presented to the group. The only public comment period of the board’s two-day August meeting is scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon, so the issue may get an airing then.

Over the last year opponents and supporters of the Common Core have made monthly appearances during SBE public comment periods to express their views.

Categories: Urban School News

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