Students at Manitou Middle School. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat Colorado

A coalition of rural Colorado districts has spent four years building a parallel, unofficial school improvement system that looks beyond test scores and seeks to measure things like the quality of instruction and student attitudes toward learning.

“We want data that helps us improve, and state data is not helping us do that,” said Lisa Yates, superintendent in the 900-student Buena Vista school district, a founding member of what’s known as the Student Centered Accountability Project.

A bill making its way through the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support would lend financial and logistical support to these efforts and encourage other districts and charter schools to undertake their own experiments. Senate Bill 204, sponsored by state Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat, would create a $500,000 grant program that school districts, educational cooperatives, and charter schools could tap to cover the costs of developing alternative accountability systems.

The bill also calls for annual reporting and an annual meeting of the participating districts and schools to learn from each other and recommend potential changes in state rules or laws related to accountability. In the third year of the program, the state would hire an outside evaluator to review the experiments’ impact on student success and on schools’ ability to improve continuously.

These pilot programs would supplement, not replace regular state ratings, which are primarily based on student performance on standardized tests. But supporters hope the experiments will eventually lead to changes in the statewide system.