Over 60 school district superintendents across Colorado signed a letter sent to the House Education Committee last week asking public officials to revisit the current accreditation and accountability system established for grading public schools per the Education Accountability Act of 2009.
The state’s accountability system is based on the belief that “every student should receive an excellent education and graduate ready to succeed,” according to the website.
The system is responsible for accrediting school districts based on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS test, English language proficiency test and practice SAT, or PSAT, results as well as reporting student data.
The letter states that signees do not believe the law is “working as intended and believe now is the time to revisit it and find out which parts of it have failed and which parts of it are working.”
St. Vrain Valley School District Superintendent Don Haddad is among the letter’s signees.
Haddad also spearheaded the petition alongside SVVSD’s executive director of legal and governmental affairs and former Senator Brandon Shaffer, Superintendent Pamela Swanson of Westminster Public Schools, and Rep. Shannon Bird, who sponsored House Bill 21-1294 calling for an audit of K-12 education accountability systems.
Established over a decade ago, Bird said the accountability system has not changed nor been revisited to ensure it is delivering on its promise to make schools better. She agrees with educators that the system creates unintended consequences that shift resources from schools which “need the help but could never meet the standards,” she said.
When schools do not meet the mandated standards, teachers are forced to teach only the basics in order to raise CMAS test scores. Often this results in cutting extracurricular and enrichment activities from the school curriculum. Those are “the exciting parts of education that make school worth it for kids,” Bird said.
Adams 14 School District in Commerce City is one such school. In 2018, it was the first district in Colorado to be supervised by an external managing organization after failing to meet expectations for five consecutive years, according to a 2018 Colorado Public Radio story.
“If you look at Adams 14, their course offerings and all opportunities available for students and compare them to opportunities for students attending SVVSD. It’s vastly different,” Bird said. “SVVSD has access to abundant extracurricular activities, not just core classes but electives, all kinds of other choices (other than what) the test focuses on, enrichment activities and things that our society, at large, values.”
Laura Martinez, a Commerce City resident, has three children who attend Hampton Elementary in Adams 14, the same school she attended as a child.
When her oldest child, who is now 9-years-old, started kindergarten, she noticed some things she didn’t agree with at the school, which prompted her to become involved and better understand the issues the district was facing, she said.
She recalls going to the State Board of Education several times to ask for help as the district plunged into lower ratings without receiving much guidance, Martinez said.
“For me, it felt like they (the State Board of Education) were standing behind and just watching us, and crossing their arms and not doing anything about it, until we finally hit the lowest of the low,” she said. “It was very frustrating for me, for parents and community members it was so frustrating.”
Over 65% of Adams 14’s student population is Hispanic, which is more than double the rate in Colorado. Nearly half of the households report a household income of less than $50,000, according to data compiled by Census Reporter.
“The bill would allow the accountability system to be audited. It takes more into account not just test scores but also what else is going on,” she said. “We have to figure out why all these districts are failing, what else is there that is making them fail and others not. This gives us an opportunity to look at it from an eagle’s eye view to make sure everyone has an even playing field.”
The achievement gap that has been talked about for years in terms of the public education system is really a testing gap based on a system that has not adapted to respond to a changing environment, according to Haddad.
“Proponents of it want to hold on to an antiquated standardized test as if every child is exactly the same, as if every child has exactly the same opportunity, as if every school district has the same resources to work with, which is nonsensical,” Haddad said.
The education system should be in alignment with the fast-paced expansion of technology and move towards more complex problem-solving, innovation and critical thinking, Haddad said, which is what SVVSD has been working towards over the past decade.
The passage of the mill levy override has allowed SVVSD to offer extraordinary opportunities to its students and staff, including high-powered devices, robotics programming, advanced placement and concurrent enrollment classes, P-TECH programs and more.
“These are all part of the vision we had in 2008, but if you are a school system that doesn't have these resources, whether it's because you're too small, (a rural district) … or you are in such high levels of poverty that all of your resources have to go into trying to accommodate this standardized test, you don't have room for anything else,” Haddad said. “We've been able to branch out because we know it's best for our kids, we haven't been beholden to this simple test … Testing is a portion of what we should be doing. It's not the totality of what we should be doing,” Haddad said.
Rep. Colin Larson, District 22 representative in Jefferson County and one of the two public officials who voted no on the motion to pass the bill in the Education Committee, said the current accountability system serves a purpose keeping public education in check.
“It is not going to shock anybody (to know) that the education system is not working for students of color and low income, but that is not the fault of the accountability system, in fact that is why we have an accountability system, to make sure we are aware of these facts,” he said.
Larson said the audit would be, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, it will undermine the entire system, allowing the focus to shift away from the problem of districts failing over the last few decades.
“What we are not doing a good job of is using the information from the accountability system to fix these errors,” he said.
Larson is not the only one who is resistant to moving forward with an audit, according to Swanson, there are many others who oppose the current bill and similar legislative efforts, which to her is “puzzling,” she said.
“In a school district we have many, many audits of various kinds every year,” Swanson said. “We do a financial audit, we do a full audit … we are asked to audit many programs and systems within the boundaries of our local school district. Why, after a decade, would we not audit this system that affects so many districts and so many children in Colorado?”
Swanson said back in 2009 she and many others supported the creation of the Accountability Act, including SVVSD’s Shaffer, who was president of the senate and signed the original bill.
“Now we have time to look back and see, have we met progress on the original intent of that bill?” Swanson said. “When I look at that, from a big picture perspective, I see that the state results over the decade are actually flat and we have not closed the achievement gaps as a state.”
Westminster moved away from a traditional education system to a competency-based system that meets students where they are, Swanson said.
“We don't group kids by age. We group them by demonstrated performance,” she said. “In terms of measuring their progress, we have to be thoughtful in terms of what's the best way to measure a student's progress because they are making progress, and even with the state's accountability system, we were able to show over time that we're actually closing those educational gaps within our school district.”
The bill was introduced on Apr. 22 and passed the House Educational Committee on May 6 with a seven to two vote. The next step is a motion on the House Appropriation Committee, before moving to the House floor, Bird said.
If signed into law, bill 21-1294 would look at over a decade’s worth of data starting this fall with results to be released towards the end of 2022.
“If nothing’s wrong, if the system is working, then I hope people who care about public education can focus on how to further improve upon our system and think about what else we can do to do to support our children,” Bird said.
Editor's note: The original version of the article stated the step following the motion on the House of Appropriation Committee would be the Senate floor. The next step would be the House floor.