Denver, CO

Denver area school supers want changes to state accountability system

Suzie Glassman

By: Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver

(Castle Rock, CO) The Denver area superintendent's council wants Colorado’s school district accountability system, based mainly on Colorado Measures of Academic Success scores, to evolve.

The current accountability system rates districts on a scale from “accredited with distinction” at the highest level to “turnaround” at the lowest. The ratings serve as a report card on academic achievement, growth, and postsecondary and workforce readiness.

Yet, DougCo superintendent Erin Kane said that the superintendent’s group, which includes herself, believes the system has several fatal flaws. “The performance metrics haven’t changed in 13 years since they became law in 2009.”

Impact on student learning

“CMAS is taken in April or sometimes at the end of March, which means the test isn’t measuring a full year,” said Kane.

“But our standards represent a full year, meaning if kids are supposed to be able to learn ‘A, B, and C’ by the end of second grade, they’re tested when they still have a full two to two and a half months left of instruction.”

She argues that testing before the year is up unfairly penalizes teachers and students and puts added pressure on teachers to teach materials they know will be on the test.

Kane also states that because schools don’t know how their students perform on the test until the beginning of the following school year, teachers can’t course-correct to ensure those who are behind catch up to grade level before moving on.

Garbage in, garbage out

If many students opt out of the test, the results are less likely to accurately capture how well teachers do. Kane argues that DougCo parents, in particular, struggle to understand how taking the test will help their children. As a result, DougCo has a high percentage of opt-outs.

She also argues that there’s always a concern about whether or not kids try to do their best. “I remember talking to high school students in 2018, and they wanted to know why Cherry Creek was outscoring them on CMAS,” she said.

“I asked many of these high-achieving students how many opted out. Half the hands went up. Then, I asked how many of those who took the test tried their hardest. Almost no one said they did.”

The scores don’t matter to many high school students because they don't impact grade point averages, graduation requirements, or college applications.

Measured on a curve

Colorado’s test scores are normalized yearly to represent the percentage of kids performing at a certain level. For instance, your child’s score could put them in the 75th percentile for Math, meaning they outperformed 75% of the students in the state.

But those percentages will change next year, making them useless for comparison.

“The grading is on a curve, which means the performance is relative. Even if everyone gets better, the bottom two schools will still be the bottom two schools. It’s like moving the goalposts based on a curve every year,” said Kane.

Moving parts

Kane said yearly changes to what gets measured are frustrating for district leaders. Last year, the test measured students’ knowledge of high school science. This year the test didn’t include high school science.

“It’s tough to compare our score on the framework this year, to our score last year when you’re moving the parts around.”

Diversity populations are penalized

The accountability system measures and scores districts according to academic growth among all students and again among subgroups, like English learners, students with disabilities, minorities, and those on free and reduced lunch.

“If you are a district where all of your kids are on free and reduced lunch, you lose points based on academic growth for all students, and probably again in at least three of the other categories, so you lose points twice,” said Kane.

“It’s a huge frustration for a significant amount of my colleagues.”

What Denver-area supers want to happen

The group says the system must evolve to provide accurate and timely performance assessments that promote high expectations for students and allow comparability for the educational community to embrace it.

Students should be better off as a result. “Our kids do a lot of sitting for testing at the end of the year because they’re doing i-Ready (for DougCo) and CMAS, which is a massive number of hours,” said Kane. “That’s lost instruction time.”

The group proposes that the state establish a common scale score for ELA and Math growth and performance that would correlate to nationally-recognized assessments. They also believe districts should be allowed to use an approved assessment that is meaningful for their needs instead of the Colorado test.

Doing so would end the practice of having students take two lengthy tests and give back hours of valuable learning time.

The accountability framework should also align with Colorado Essential Skills, incorporate district-specific measures that measure the impact of initiatives taken within those districts, and continue to measure postsecondary readiness.

Kane said she’s part of a smaller group that plans to gather data from stakeholders about what accountability looks like and how it should change.

She also said this group is also considering legislative action to create a task force at the state level that is charged with reimagining the framework.

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I'm a reporter covering the Douglas County School District in Colorado.

Denver, CO

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