Five low-performing Colorado school districts on track for sanctions after state releases quality ratings

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Five Colorado school districts face the unprecedented prospect of state sanctions and three were spared that fate according to final state school district quality ratings released Thursday.

The ratings from the Colorado Department of Education are the first since the state made a switch in assessments designed to measure student learning in English and math. The ratings are also the first to be released since a growing number of families began opting their children out of the tests, driving down many districts’ participation rates and complicating state officials’ efforts to rate them.

The five districts that failed to improve student learning enough during the last six years and now face state action are a mix of suburban and rural: Westminster Public Schools, Adams 14 School District, Aguilar Reorganized, Montezuma-Cortez and Julesburg RE-1.

Those districts have one more chance to appeal to the State Board of Education for a higher rating, which could halt the sanction process. Such an appeal has never been granted.

The sanctions could come as soon as February. Among the state board’s options for the five school districts: close schools, turn some over to a charter authorizer, or direct the district to reorganize and turn over some operations such as teacher training to a third party.

Both Adams 14 and Westminster asked for the state to reconsider their ratings before finalizing them. But both those bids fell short. State officials concluded that Adams 14 neither improved enough nor provided sufficient data, and district officials say they will not appeal.

In Westminster’s case, the state said the district could claim some promising data but not enough to lift its rating. District officials also contended the state accountability system doesn’t adequately take into account the way it groups students not by age but by what they know. District officials told Chalkbeat they plan to appeal.

The three districts that beat the state’s so-called “accountability clock” and escaped sanctions were Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and Ignacio. The three districts learned they had made enough improvement earlier this fall, and the final ratings make it official.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the state’s districts were awarded one of the state’s top two ratings. Another five districts ranked in the bottom two.

More than half of the state’s 184 school districts and other agencies that get ratings — including the Charter School Institute, the state’s charter school authorizer — have similar ratings compared to 2014, when the ratings were last issued. Forty districts saw a rating increase, while 33 districts dropped at least one level.

Meanwhile, 13 mostly small rural districts effectively have no rating because too few students in those districts took the state’s tests.

The ratings come almost four months since the state released the second round of results from PARCC exams.

The ratings rely heavily on results from the PARCC English and math tests students in grades three through nine take each spring. Other factors that contribute to a district’s rating include how well high school juniors scored on the ACT and how many students graduate or drop out.

Under the system, which was created by the General Assembly in 2009, districts that fall in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face sanctions. This year marks the first year the State Board of Education must take action on districts that have crossed that threshold.

In the past, the department has issued districts one of five ratings: “distinction” being the highest and “turnaround” being the lowest. This year, in response to the state’s growing movement of parents opting their students out of state standardized tests, the department developed a sixth rating: “insufficient state data, low participation.”

The department is also clearly labeling districts that had enough data to get ranked but fewer than 95 percent of students take the PARCC exams.

State and federal law require schools to test 95 percent of their students in an effort to ensure schools don’t exclude groups of students such as English language learners or students with special needs.

However, state lawmakers, reacting to pressure from parents and activists, tweaked the law in 2015: Students who are excused from the tests aren’t counted as either participants or nonparticipants. As a result, the state changed the way it calculates a district’s participation rate so districts are not are only held responsible for testing students who are not excused by their parents.

The resistance to standardized testing and the changes to the law “created some interesting situations,” said Alyssa Pearson, the department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

“We need direction from policy makers,” Pearson said, noting the state’s rating system was created in 2009, a time when nearly every student took the state’s standardized tests. “This year, we did what made sense to us.”

When the state released its preliminary ratings earlier this fall, dozens of districts had their ratings lowered manually by the department because they failed to meet the 95 percent participation rate and did not provide evidence that parents had pulled their kids from testing.

The department received a record number of requests from districts to up their ratings. Mosts of those requests were granted because data coding errors led to a lower preliminary rating.

Ultimately, three districts had a rating lowered due to low participation — the first time the state has made such a move. Another 89 districts did not have their ratings lowered but were flagged for low participation.

One of those districts that was flagged for low participation was Boulder Valley, which had a “distinction” rating in 2014 but earned an “accredited with low participation” rating this year. An epicenter for the opt-out movement, Boulder had not a single grade meet the 95 percent participation requirement.

Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent, said the district’s performance is not being accurately captured because so many students opted out.

“I’m not pleased that accreditation would be impacted by the participation rate,” said Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent. “We have a conflict in the state of Colorado over the relationship between accreditation and participation. That needs to be resolved, and I’m sure it will be over time.”

“We have no reason to believe the performance on the test, on those that were reported, reflect our school district,” he added. “Statistically there is no way anyone could jump to that conclusion.”

The state’s third largest school district and another opt-out hotbed, the Douglas County School District, also saw its rating drop since 2014 and flagged for low participation. However, leaders there seem unfazed.

“We recognize the impact that low participation rates in state-mandated assessments have on accreditation ratings,” Interim Superintendent Erin Kane said in a statement. “However, we honor parental choice and will continue to do so.”

The state is expected to release school ratings at the state board’s January meeting.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.