Colorado finally received approval for its federally mandated education plan Monday, one year and two revisions after the state first submitted it.
Colorado’s plan was held up longer than any other state’s by a series of disagreements over the best way to measure student achievement, including how to count students who opt out of state assessments. In most of those disagreements, the federal view prevailed, leaving Colorado with two divergent accountability systems, one state and one federal.
“We wanted to stick to our Colorado principles,” said Pat Chapman, executive director of the federal programs unit in the Colorado Department of Education.
Colorado wanted to use its state accountability system developed in 2009 to meet federal requirements, but ultimately the two were not entirely compatible. The state accountability system is more likely to identify schools that are not serving a large share of their students, while the federal system flags schools that aren’t serving certain subgroups, like students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, or English language learners, even if their overall numbers look good.
“What we use the federal system for is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources to those schools,” Chapman said.
Educational and civil rights advocates who have been involved in the development of the plan say that it’s improved in some ways, but they’re concerned that the existence of two accountability systems – or three in the case of districts like Denver that have their own school ratings – will lead to more confusion unless there’s a clear way of sharing information with parents.
Schools identified as “turnaround” or “priority improvement” status under state law won’t necessarily be flagged for improvement under ESSA, and vice versa.
“Our concern with having two different systems is that there may be confusion among parents about which system actually tells them how their school and district is performing,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the Equity in Colorado Coalition.
And bilingual educators say the approved plan fails to address two key problems, the lack of assessments in students’ native language and inconsistent criteria for when students learning English keep receiving services or transition out.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, requires each state to submit a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals.
Without an approved plan, Colorado schools risked losing access to nearly $200 million in federal funds for children from low-income families, and other aid. ESSA also provides $10 million a year to Colorado schools that have been flagged as needing improvement.
Colorado has been a center of the “opt-out” movement of parents refusing to allow their children to be tested. In response, the State Board of Education forbid lowering a school’s quality rating if fewer than 95 percent of its students were tested. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, insisted that Colorado treat students who don’t take the test as if they were not proficient, the lowest ranking. This became a key sticking point.
Under the approved plan, Colorado schools with high opt-out rates will need to come up with plans to test more of their students. This comes even as state lawmakers this year banned the use of rewards like pizza parties for students who take the tests. Instead, schools will have to make the case to parents and students that the tests are meaningful and important.
Two other key differences:
- The federal government will rate schools based on four-year graduation rates, while Colorado lets schools use the best result from its four-, five-, six- or seven-year graduation rates.
- The federal government will rate alternative high schools based on their graduation rate, while Colorado looks at completion rate, a broader measure that includes students who get a GED.
ESSA also lets states choose non-academic measures of student success against which school quality can be judged. In Colorado, one of those will be chronic absenteeism, and some schools are trying innovative programs to work with parents to help them get their kids to school.
Colorado’s student data privacy regulations means that the state won’t be reporting detailed information about small subgroups to federal regulators, an issue that advocacy groups say limits the public’s ability to understand how schools are doing.
State education officials have embraced the “flexibility” offered by ESSA in comparison to No Child Left Behind, but during a panel discussion earlier this year, Alexandra Alonso of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, and Research Organization, stressed that the new law needs to be understood as a piece of civil rights legislation.
“It’s not intended to create more autonomy for states,” Alonso said. “It’s intended to have more equitable outcomes for our students.”
In that regard, Colorado’s plan still needs work, said Jorge García, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. There still isn’t a consistent enough standard for promoting students out of English acquisition programs, García said. Students languishing in those classes too long suffer, he said.
“It denies them access to electives,” he said. “It denies them access to the entire schedule of classes. It denies them access to the full content of the classes. They don’t take the classes that prepare them for college and a career. This particular high stakes decision is hurting a lot of our students.”
Colorado’s ESSA plan also doesn’t indicate any intention to develop Spanish-language math assessments.
Colorado received wide praise for its work to reach out to community groups, advocates, and school districts as it developed its plan, and Colwell said community groups will continue to work with the Colorado Department of Education to shape implementation of the plan.
“I am incredibly thankful for the amount of time and effort that so many people put in to develop our state plan,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a press release. “Colorado has had ambitious education strategies in place. This plan maintains our strong education laws while working together with the federal law to support all students.”
In a press release announcing approval for Colorado’s plan, U.S. Department of Education officials highlighted several features that other states don’t have. Those include a “one-stop process” for schools to apply for services and grants tailored for their specific challenges, a coordinated grant management system, and training for teachers in all subject areas.