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Updated: 1 year 2 weeks ago

The new-look SAT is here, ushering in more changes to how Colorado tests kids

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 20:11

At STRIVE Excel, a northwest Denver charter high school, students Friday shuffled through the hallways in pajamas. Some wrapped themselves in cozy fleece blankets.

School leaders hoped this spirit day would send a message to juniors: Get plenty of rest this weekend. A big test is coming.

On Tuesday, 11th graders across Colorado for the first time will take the new-look SAT, which is replacing the ACT as the mandatory state test for that grade. The results, like those from the ACT in years past, will factor into the state’s accountability system for school and districts.

Following a nationwide trend in standardized testing, the updated SAT puts less emphasis on rote memorization — students won’t need to know the definition of “garrulous” or other infamous “SAT words” — and puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking. There are fewer questions and students will spend more time explaining their work.

The shift from the ACT to the SAT comes as the state continues to refine its testing system amid a public backlash against standardized tests. The results from those tests are used in part to rate the quality of each school.

“The SAT is really about college,” said Ben Lewis, the principal at STRIVE Excel principal. “It’s a much easier argument for kids than a complicated accountability system.”

Colorado’s adoption of the SAT is the byproduct of a 2015 legislative compromise forged during a months-long debate about testing.

The ACT had been a required test for 11th graders since 2011. In 2014, the state began requiring students in that grade to also take state PARCC tests in math and English.

The backlash — at least in some communities — was immediate. Thousands of students concentrated in high-performing, wealthy suburban districts and some rural areas skipped the PARCC tests in protest. That caused state lawmakers to reconsider how it tests in high school.

Legislation in 2015 eliminated PARCC for both 10th and 11th graders. After intense lobbying by The College Board, makers of the SAT, lawmakers also decided to open to competitive bidding the 10th and 11th grade testing that would remain.

A panel of educators commissioned by the state education department picked the PSAT for 10th graders and the SAT for 11th graders.

Those teachers and testing experts found the SAT better aligned to the state’s academic standards, which include the Common Core in math and English. The panel also felt the SAT offered more and cheaper resources to schools to help students prepare.

Some test prep materials are even free.

“We’ve never been able to budget a teacher to do test prep,” said Julie Knowles, assessment director for the Garfield School District in western Colorado, who was part of the panel that selected the SAT. “So the free resources have been a boon.”

Garfield’s two high schools have purchased additional SAT-aligned tests for lower grades to help track student progress. The two schools spent a combined $3,069, or $8.50 per student, for each test.

The decision to move to the PSAT and SAT in the spring of 2016 was announced just before Christmas in 2015. It sparked an outcry among school officials across the state.

School leaders, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull, said the timing of the decision was unacceptable: Schools had already been preparing students to take the ACT that spring.

As a compromise, the department agreed to hold off on moving to the SAT until 2017.

Cherry Creek had other cause for concern: Like some other school districts, it was already using companion tests, known as Aspire, published by the ACT to track student learning through multiple grades — and, ideally, setting students up for success on the ACT.

The local use of the Aspire tests, which the suburban Denver school district decided to maintain despite the shift to the SAT, helps maintain a long-term dataset amid changes in testing at the state level, said Judy Skupa, an assistant superintendent in Cherry Creek.

“With the volatility of the state assessment system, it was difficult to monitor students,” she said. “That’s why we went to an internal system. Our data won’t be subject to political winds.”

Policymakers aren’t done tinkering with the state’s testing system.

Lawmakers want to continue expanding the SAT’s reach in high school. If a bipartisan compromise becomes law this year, ninth graders would stop taking the PARCC test this year and begin taking a version of the PSAT next spring.

And because the state’s contract with PARCC is up this year, the state education department is seeking bids to find a new test for the state’s elementary and middle schools.

“There’s a lot of flux coming in the next several years,” said Garfield’s Knowles, adding that her parents trust the SAT, and as a result testing is up at her schools. “We don’t have to sell it. They see it as a gateway for kids who want to go to college. Even if they want to go on a vocational path.”

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco teachers would get pay raises under tentative agreement

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 18:00

Officials from Jeffco Public Schools have agreed to $19.5 million in pay increases for teachers next year.

Under the plan, employees who have “demonstrated effective performance,” will receive a step increase. Step increases are salary raises given after completing a year of work, and dependent on years in the district. Teachers who are effective and have earned graduate-level credits will receive a “level increase.” Districts officials said they could not immediately answer whether teachers could get both.

And all employees covered under the contract will get a cost-of-living increase of 1 percent, or 2 percent if state funding permits.

The agreement, reached this week, still has to be ratified by the teacher’s union members and then the school board must vote to approve it.

The Jeffco school board directed staff months ago to find a way to increase competitive pay for teachers. A tax increase request from the district that voters turned down in November would have included $12 million for salary increases, but after that was defeated, staff proposed a series of budget cuts that would free up funding for the salary increases.

Board members ultimately voted on a scaled back proposal of cuts after the superintendent at the last minute said the district could, for now, use $9 million in retirement savings and $11 million in reductions from central staff to pay for salary increases.

“We are pleased at the collaborative efforts that went into this agreement,” Ron Mitchell, the school board president, said in a statement. “One of our board goals has been to make our salaries more competitive. Though we have limited resources, this agreement demonstrates our commitment to our teachers and should help us be more competitive in today’s market. We have had to tighten our belts, but we’ve been able to accomplish this without making serious cuts to programs that directly impact our students.”

Jeffco staff has told the school board that the district’s salaries are competitive in some cases, but not for mid-career teachers. Staff and principals detailed concerns that experienced teachers were leaving the district.

According to state turnover data, Jeffco’s teacher turnover rate this year is just over 14 percent. That was an increase over last year but but still well below turnover rates in districts such as Denver, Westminster, Aurora and Douglas County.

Also as part of the $19.5 million agreement, experienced teachers new to Jeffco will be compensated for up to six years of experience, up from a maximum of five years now.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Partisan showdown over school funding in House budget debate

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 09:40

READ ACT A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over. Chalkbeat Colorado

'SENSITIVE LOCATIONS' Leaders from Denver's city government, school district and court system are pressing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to back off enforcement actions at or near schools and courthouses. Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, Denverite, Colorado Independent9News, CBS4, Channel 7

CONCURRENT ENROLLMENT More Colorado students are taking college courses while they’re in high school, continuing an upward trend, state data show. Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post

THAT'S SO LEGISLATURE After a marathon debate, the Colorado House delayed a vote on $26.8 billion state budget that would under-fund schools. Denver Post

SEEKING SOLUTIONS As Chalkbeat has previously reported, a bipartisan bill aims to tackle the state's teacher shortage. Aurora Sentinel

 

Categories: Urban School News

Did immigration agents get too close to a Denver school? City, district officials raise questions

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 19:29

Leaders from Denver's city government, school district and court system have a message for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: back off our schools and courthouses.

In a letter Thursday to the acting chief of the local ICE field office, officials including Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg asked that the agency follow its own policy in respecting such "sensitive locations" while carrying out their duties.

The letter in part was triggered by a March 14 incident that rattled one Denver school community.

That morning, federal immigration agents dressed in black arrived at a residence directly adjacent to Colorado High School Charter in west Denver, a neighborhood that is home to many immigrant families, according to the letter. The enforcement action, which was planned, came during morning drop-off in plain view of students and families, it said.

"We believe this enforcement action, particularly because it was scheduled  to occur during the morning drop-off period, may have violated both the letter and the spirit of your sensitive location policy," the letter reads. "The hour and location of this action potentially put children, staff and parents in danger should your agents have encountered resistance, and clearly caused alarm to the principal and the community served by the school."

The 2011 "sensitive location" policy discourages ICE agents from arresting, interviewing, searching or surveilling targets of investigations while they are in schools, places of worship, hospitals or at public demonstrations like marches and rallies. Exceptions are allowed if "exigent circumstances exist," or other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location.

A memo laying out the policy also says ICE officers or agents should consult with supervisors if a planned enforcement operation "could reasonably be viewed as being at or near a sensitive location."

Another aspect of the March 14 incident bothered authors of the letter to ICE. According to the letter, video taken during the incident shows ICE  agents wearing black uniforms with "POLICE" in large white letters and "ICE" in much smaller type. This, the letter said, can lead people to mistakenly think that local police are involved in immigration enforcement.

A Denver-based ICE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Denver Public Schools has taken several steps to reassure immigrant families in the wake of President Trump's election and his following through on campaign promises to adopt hard-line immigration policies.

The school board in February approved a resolution saying DPS will do everything “in its lawful power” in response to immigration enforcement to protect students’ confidential information and not disrupt learning. That includes continuing its policy of not collecting any information on students’ immigration status and involving DPS’s general counsel in any enforcement requests.

Alex Renteria, a DPS spokeswoman, said the principal of Colorado High School Charter contacted the City Council, not the school district. She said the district's legal department could not recall other examples of ICE detentions near schools.

The principal of Colorado High School Charter, Clark Callaham, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The school is an alternative high school serving at-risk students. As of last fall, it had 350 students, 62 percent of whom are Hispanic, DPS data show. Many are from outside the district's boundaries.

Boasberg said in a statement Thursday that the district is required by law “to ensure that our schools are safe spaces where a student’s race, ethnicity, religion and immigration status do not create any barriers to that child’s education."

"We urge ICE to continue to respect our schools as sensitive locations so that our students know they are safe," Boasberg said. "When they are confident in their safety, they will be more successful as students and their success as students is so vital to our shared success as a community.”

Categories: Urban School News

Colorado lawmakers reach compromise on reading test controversy

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 17:49

A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Thursday to advance an amended bill that would require schools to test the state’s youngest students in English if they’re partly proficient in the language. If they’re not, a district may choose to test their reading skills in either Spanish or English.

The legislation is a compromise, reflecting an agreement between the State Board of Education and school districts with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, such as Denver Public Schools.

State Sens. Owen Hill and Tim Neville, both Republicans, opposed the bill.

For the changes to take effect, the state Senate must still sign off on the deal. And the state House of Representatives must agree to the change to a bill that chamber already has approved.

The original bill sponsored in the Senate by state Sens. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, and Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, would have allowed districts to choose which language to test students in regardless of their English skills.

A majority on the state board opposed the bill in that form and pushed for the amendment.

The debate over what language to use to catch reading deficiencies in elementary school students dates back to the creation of the READ Act.

The 2012 law requires schools to test students in kindergarten through third grade to gauge their reading skills. The goal is to make sure students are reading at grade level by third grade. Students that demonstrate a reading deficiency are put on a plan to provide them more support.

One year after the law went into effect, school districts raised concern that they were double-testing English language learners in Spanish and English. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency.

After the opinion was released, the state board changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But in 2016, a reconfigured state board added a new provision. If schools were going to test students in Spanish, they must also do it in English.

The board’s decision at the time was met with opposition led by by Denver school officials.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Categories: Urban School News

More high school students earning college credit through concurrent enrollment

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 12:00

More Colorado students are taking college courses while they’re in high school, continuing an upward trend, according to a state report released Thursday.

There were 38,519 students in so-called concurrent enrollment programs in the 2015-16 school year, or more than 30 percent of all 11th-graders and 12th-graders in the state’s public high schools.

The programs allow high school students to take college courses while still enrolled in high school without having to pay college tuition. The programs have been growing in popularity across the country, as have early college high schools that promote enrolling all students in them.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education report states that students who participate are more likely to enroll and stay in college and less likely to need remedial courses in college.

The annual report tracks the number of credits students earn compared to the number that they attempted to earn. In the 2015-16 school year, students passed 93 percent of credit hours attempted. An increasing number of students also completed a postsecondary credential through the programs.

School district breakdowns show the Moffat Consolidated School District in northwest Colorado as enrolling 80 percent of its students in concurrent enrollment programs — the highest rate in the state. Large school districts have a larger number of students participating, but they represent only a fraction of their students.
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Other highlights from the report show:

  • Statewide, 94 percent of school districts and 82 percent of high schools offer concurrent enrollment programs
  • Among two-year institutions, Arapahoe Community College served the most students, with 4,403 enrolled. Among four-year schools, the University of Colorado Denver served the most students, with 5,297 enrolled.
  • Compared to the prior year, participation in concurrent enrollment programs increased among Asian students by 18 percent; Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students by 21 percent; Hispanic students by 7 percent, white, non-Hispanic students by 8 percent; and students identifying as more than one race by 12 percent.

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Bill asking for study recognizes complex issues for teacher shortage

Thu, 04/06/2017 - 09:59

ACCOUNTABILITY Aurora Public Schools doesn't have a policy that deals with struggling charter schools and now that one has been identified for low performance, the district wants to draft changes. Chalkbeat Colorado

RURAL TEACHING The issues rural districts are having to find and keep teachers are complicated, and part of the reason some legislators want to direct officials to study the problem. KUNC

BACK ON TRACK Plans for a military style charter school in Colorado Springs are now being moved through the Charter School Institute. Gazette

CLASS OF 2021 The Montezuma-Cortez High School has new graduation requirements ready for this fall's incoming freshmen. The Journal

ON LEAVE Fort Collins charter school puts principal on leave. Coloradoan

Categories: Urban School News

Aurora district considering consequences for low-performing charter schools

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 20:04

In Aurora Public Schools, district-run schools must perform well enough academically or face repercussions, including possible closure, if they don’t shape up fast enough.

The same cannot be said for the district’s charter schools. Charter school contracts don’t have standard language spelling out performance standards, and the school district doesn’t have a policy for dealing with academically struggling charter schools.

All that could change soon. District officials are in the early stages of drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations and consequences for its charter schools.

The district is acting now because one Aurora charter, AXL Academy, earned a priority improvement rating from the state this year, the second lowest rating on the state’s system.

District officials are calling for a thorough review of AXL Academy and will be asking school leaders to create an improvement plan within 30 days. Having a new policy applying to all charter schools could set clear expectations and outline a process to close charters that fail to meet those expectations.

“The purpose is so we have a consistent way of holding schools accountable — a consistent and transparent process,” said Lamont Browne, the district’s executive director of autonomous schools.

Under what the district calls the CORE Framework, officials identify struggling schools using the state’s quality ratings. Schools earning the lowest two ratings get on the district’s radar. The framework outlines a timeline that requires an improvement plan and directs additional help for the school the first time it earns a low rating.

By the third year that a school is still earning low ratings, the district must recommend turnaround or a school improvement strategy.

The school then has one to two years to show improvement. The district used this framework to recommend a charter school take-over for one school last year.

So far, only district-run schools have faced consequences under the framework because a charter school hasn’t fit the definition for low-performing. Now that it’s happened, the district is trying to figure out what pieces can apply to charter schools, or whether other steps might be needed.

For charter schools, Browne says it’s too early to know exactly what a new policy might say. Officials are starting by researching best practices across the country, he said.

For now, the more thorough review that will be required for AXL Academy won’t necessarily lead to any consequences.

Browne told the school board in an update Tuesday night that in the future, if reviews show a concerning trend, officials could make a case for a charter school revocation or nonrenewal.

With AXL Academy, the Aurora district already has some flexibility to connect school performance to consequences. Because the school experienced financial problems in 2014, and the district gave the charter school a loan, language was added to that charter contract stating the school has to “maintain a school performance rating of 'Performance' as measured by state and school assessments,” and that failure to do so could be considered a breach of contract.

If the school board found a breach of contract, the district could shut down the school.

Similar contract language could be required in all future charter school contracts.

Dan Cohen, executive director for AXL Academy, said that he is confident the charter school will show improvement soon, but that he is worried the district is mounting evidence to recommend closure.

“I have no qualms that we will pull out of priority improvement,” Cohen said “We feel quite good about what we’ve been doing, but I don’t know what that will mean to the district.”

Cohen said that he is unsure why the district needs a separate assessment and timeline process for charter schools, and that it might make sense for the timeline and process to be similar to traditional district-run schools.

As far as the improvement process that Browne told the board Tuesday that AXL Academy will be required to submit, Cohen said it’s news to him. He said school leaders are already scrambling with a 10-day deadline to edit the school’s state improvement plan.

“Their behavior right now looks aggressive,” Cohen said of the school district.

District leaders expect to present a proposed policy to the board by June.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: DU professor creates app to help young students learn math

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 07:40

RURAL ROADBLOCK Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts. Chalkbeat

HUMAN RESOURCES Former Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee has been named head of a growing charter school network catering to immigrant and at-risk students. Chalkbeat

MATH MATTERS A DU professor has created a downloadable app for children ages 2 to 8 to accelerate learning in mathematics. 9News

SPRING STORM The latest spring storm hit the Colorado Springs area with several inches of snow overnight, leaving several school districts closed or on delay, felled trees, power outages and slick roads. Gazette

FREE SPEECH Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday signed into law the abolition of free-speech zones on public college campuses. The areas have been used to confine public demonstrations to designated areas. Denver Post

 

Categories: Urban School News

It seemed like a sure thing. Now a Colorado bill limiting early childhood suspensions and expulsions is on life support.

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 19:45

Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

While House Bill 1210 is still alive, it’s been assigned to a Republican-controlled Senate committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. The assignment to the Senate State Affairs Committee is a major setback for supporters who believe the legislation would put Colorado on the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Although advocates garnered substantial bipartisan support among lawmakers and worked for months gathering feedback from school districts and other groups, a late-breaking push by a coalition of rural school districts sidelined the effort.

The group had an opportunity to weigh in earlier, but did not. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she knew about the bill and was included in supporters’ outreach efforts, but didn’t initially voice opposition on behalf of her members.

“I wouldn’t say we ever supported the bill, but we weren’t taking an active approach,” she said. “This was just one I didn’t vet well enough.”

Murphy said she and some lawmakers began hearing major concerns from rural superintendents as the bill wound through the legislative process, with many district leaders saying the new rules would tie educators’ hands.

“Sometimes we need to suspend or expel young students,” Murphy said. “It’s a tool that’s in our limited toolbox.”

On March 21, the same day the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, the alliance’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it. Two days later, the bill was assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“I learned a few lessons here,” Murphy said. “I somewhat regret the late nature of it all.”

Although rural school districts educate only about 20 percent of Colorado students, they hold sway at the state Capitol, especially among Republicans. This year, two Senate Republicans who represent rural areas were given leadership positions.

State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she was disappointed about the bill’s likely fate.

"I thought we had support with all the diverse stakeholders,” she said. "We sat down with (the Rural Alliance). We went through a draft of the bill and asked them what their concerns were and addressed them. I was frankly very surprised where the pushback was coming from.”

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes the bill could make it through the committee. He’s lobbying committee members and Senate leadership, he said.

“I think it’s good policy, there’s data there, and this is a good conversation for the Senate to have,” he said.

While some of his co-sponsors are open to amending the bill to meet the demands of the rural superintendents, Priola said he was hesitant to provide rural schools districts exceptions.

“It’s hard to cut out a section of the state on something that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said she doesn’t think the bill could be amended in a way that the alliance would support. Bill backers floated one possible change last week — involving the expulsion standard — but her board rejected it, she said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, in a statement to Chalkbeat, said House Bill 1210 and a sister measure that would provide culturally appropriate discipline training for teachers would get a fair hearing.

"These bills include provisions that could have justified assignment to a number of committees, but we concluded that State Affairs, on balance, was the right place to send them,” he said. “People often jump to conclusions about what such committee assignments mean, but I trust the bills will get a fair hearing there and I believe stakeholder discussions continue to take place that could potentially improve their chance of success."

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of many groups that pushed for the bill, said one of the biggest concerns for school districts during the bill-drafting process was to ensure that suspensions would still be allowed if young students posed a safety risk.

While the bill addresses that concern, he said, “We have more work to do apparently than we thought.”

For supporters, the bill’s passage would be a milestone in the years-long discussion in Colorado and the nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

But some superintendents said the bill wasn’t a good fit for rural districts.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said he’s had young students flipping desks over or trying to stab other children in the eye with scissors. In such cases, especially when other parents are threatening to pull their children out of the school for safety reasons, suspension or expulsion can be necessary, he said.

The bill, however, would give districts the ability to suspend children behaving in the way Sanders described.

Sanders also said Bill 1210’s time limits on suspensions — from three to five days — are more rigid than what’s in the nation’s special education law.

A better solution would be more funding for schools, including for more school social workers, he said.

Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district in northwestern Colorado and a member of the Rural Alliance’s board, said the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is not an issue in his district.

“Is it a situation where the Front Range has a cold and we have to take the medicine?” he said.

Selle said educators in Meeker think carefully before handing out suspensions, and that for kindergarten to second grade students, they rarely exceed one day.

In addition, he said, when suspensions are given, they often help lead to a productive partnership with parents.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Categories: Urban School News

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