Colorado Board Votes to Keep Current School Rating System

Published July 15, 2016

The Colorado State Board of Education (CSBOE) voted to keep the state’s system for rating schools in place after a group of education reform and civil rights activists expressed concern over a proposed new plan.

Under the system, schools are assigned points based on how well different groups of students perform on standardized tests. The number of points determines school ratings and school funding. At-risk students—who fall into various subgroups, such as low-income, special education, and “English as a Second Language”—are often counted multiple times, because they fall into multiple categories.

The system the state’s education department proposed would have created a combined subgroup of at-risk students, a move many education reform and civil rights activists deemed inequitable.

Twenty-two groups sent a letter to CSBOE in May urging it “to reconsider the adoption of a combined subgroup for accountability purposes, which would have significant implications for educational equity.”

The signers of the letter wrote “subgroup distinctions are meaningful,” and they claim ignoring “differences in history and identity” would mean school districts would not receive appropriate funding to meet the needs of very different groups of students. The letter also questioned “whether the use of super subgroups is consistent with the Every Student Succeeds Act as it is written.”

A majority of CSBOE voted in a straw poll in June to keep the current standards.

Holding Government Accountable

Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute and a signer of the letter, says the proposed rating system would have reduced accountability and would not have benefited many students.  

“The combined subgroup change was ostensibly proposed to increase fairness in our accountability system, but its effect would have been to sweep a challenging population of students under the rug and decouple hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from direct accountability,” Izard said. “I don’t think it’s just about ferreting out chronically failing schools and school systems. It’s also about making sure that all schools, regardless of performance level, are held accountable for producing results with the students they serve. It’s about making sure an enormous, taxpayer-funded government enterprise is held responsible for the outcomes it produces and the billions it spends.”

Counting Kids Twice

Izard says it makes sense to count at-risk students more than once.

“The complaint is that the current system can and does count the same student twice when he or she falls into more than one subgroup,” Izard said. “For instance, a low-income, minority, English-language learner would be counted three times, and a low-income, special-education student would be counted twice.

“Those students do indeed count more than once against a school or district when they perform poorly,” Izard said. “But the reverse is also true; they count more than once if they do well.”

Stephanie Garcia, executive director of Arc of Pueblo, a group that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and a signer of the letter, says counting low-performing students multiple times benefits them.

“Counting kids twice when they are high achievers doesn’t seem to be a problem, but it does when it comes to struggling students,” Garcia said. “I spoke out against disaggregation of the subgroups. [The Pueblo] district in particular has a very high free- and reduced-lunch population. We see how schools struggle and how important it is for [individualized education programs] to be implemented.”

Funding Individuals

Izard says the focus should be on the needs of individuals rather than broad initiatives. 

“Our school finance system tends to fund programs rather than individual students,” Izard said. “Districts and schools receive millions in state and federal money for special-education programs, low-income programs, and English-language-learner programs. The fact that an individual student happens to be involved in more than one of those programs does not change the fact that the district receives specific funding for each, nor does it alleviate the burden of providing taxpayers with direct accountability for the results those separately funded programs produce.”

Izard says schools should have a can-do attitude for students of all abilities. 

“There’s an underlying assumption that ‘those kids’ can never do better, that schools can’t help them or be held responsible for them,” Izard said. “Our nation is built upon the notion that anyone, regardless of demography or background, can compete, succeed, and experience the dignity of earned success if he or she is willing to work hard and play by the rules. With that in mind, we ought to be running away from the idea that demography foretells destiny as quickly as we possibly can.”

Aggregation Agenda

Garcia says education bureaucrats crafted the proposal in order to hide problems.

“The stakeholder group [included] 28 superintendents,” Garcia said. “Grouping [subgroups] all together, it may make a school district’s data look better, but it is not a way to provide transparency.

“Parents want transparency,” Garcia said. “We have school choice. Parents want to get on the website and look at achievement, and if I have a kid with special needs, I want to see how that school is performing in that area particularly.”

Praises Board’s Decision

Izard says he’s satisfied with the way the board ultimately voted.

“I applaud the Colorado State Board of Education for making the right call for students and taxpayers,” Izard said. “We have a constitutional duty to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ public education system in our state for all students. Progress isn’t incentivized or produced by simply shoveling ‘those kids’ into a bucket implicitly labeled ‘other.'”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.