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Coronavirus set back Colorado schools already battling to improve student performance

About 150 Colorado schools and four districts are on the state’s accountability clock. Without a pandemic, some administrators believe their schools would have soon met expectations.

Peakview School, shown here in a March 23, 2021 photo, is a preschool through eighth grade school in Walsenburg. According to the school's website, enrollment is approximately at 330. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The pandemic froze some Colorado schools in a bad place, in state regulators’ eyes. Peakview School in southern Colorado was doing the hard work to emerge from the state performance watch list when the pandemic pinned it in time: Students were shut out of taking the tests that could prove their progress and get the state off Peakview’s back.

Principal Meghan Archuleta was looking forward to her students taking the Colorado Measures of Academic Success last spring, optimistic that teachers’ hard work to accelerate their learning would pay off. They missed the chance to complete exams by about 30 days as the pandemic shuttered schools last March. This year, CMAS testing will move forward in a limited way, pending approval from the federal government. Students in grades three, five and seven will take literacy tests while students in grades four, six and eight will complete math exams. Science and social studies assessments have been canceled. 

“Students were on the up” and making significant growth, excited by their own strides, Archuleta said, adding that she’s confident that the school would no longer be on the accountability clock, if the students could have been tested.

For schools like Peakview, where many students lagged before the pandemic, the road to academic recovery now looms much longer and steeper. That disappointment is compounded by the bad timing that deprived students the opportunity to show off potential gains last spring.

But there’s good news: The state plans to pause accountability for a second straight year because of the pandemic. As schools and districts that have a history of underperforming try to get their kids on grade level, they’ll have more time to continue working to improve.

About 150 schools and four districts are currently on the accountability clock, according to the Colorado Department of Education. 

Each year, the state gives schools and districts one of four performance ratings, also known as plan types. The state accountability clock turns on for schools most underperforming on state standards and therefore rated as priority improvement or turnaround and can run as long as five years before more drastic measures are taken.

Peakview School, shown here in a March 23, 2021 photo, is a preschool through eighth grade school in Walsenburg. The school has struggled to meet state expectations for several years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This year, Colorado schools and districts are also facing a timing freeze. Now, a school that has been categorized as priority improvement and was in year three of that plan type in 2019 remained in year three last year and will stay there again this year.

School and district ratings are based on academic performance, graduation and dropout rates, SAT scores, college enrollment, and whether assessment scores are improving. 

Those schools and districts that are rated as priority improvement or turnaround for at least two consecutive years must move up the rating scale to improvement status or better for two years in a row to no longer be on state watch. Though they’re no longer on the accountability clock in those two years, the state continues to monitor them.

The State Board of Education intervenes when schools and districts continue to perform below state expectations for more than five consecutive years. For those schools that continue to struggle, the consequences can be dire. The state board can opt to close a school, mandate that a district or school work with an external management partner, or move forward with a district reorganization, among other actions.

But with timing halted for those schools and districts on performance watch amid the pandemic, the state is trying to help schools and districts focus on their immediate needs and give them the bandwidth to create more opportunities for learning, said Lisa Medler, executive director of accountability and continuous improvement at CDE. She acknowledges that the state doesn’t have enough information to evaluate how schools and districts are doing.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

A new state law proposes that the Colorado Department of Education begin to offer schools and districts rated priority improvement or turnaround a request-to-reconsider process. The process would allow schools and districts to object to their ratings and offer the state reasons why they should be reconsidered. The state would take into account other information, like data from local assessments, and could consider other softer measures like site visits. 

CDE is collaborating with an accountability work group to figure out the most effective pieces of criteria to evaluate this year.

Even if the rating of a school or district changed through the request-to-reconsider process, its timeline to exit performance watch would stay the same. It would still need to go through two rounds of performance measures and hit improvement status or better twice in a row to be fully removed from performance watch.

By pausing the clock, the state acknowledges that eligible schools and districts are progressing while still enabling the state to monitor their progress and lend additional support and resources, Medler said.

Whether schools and districts with priority improvement or turnaround status will be able to go through this kind of request-to-reconsider process is still up to the State Board of Education.

On the cusp of a better rating

As schools and districts emerge from the pandemic, will more need to be on performance watch?

“That is the million-dollar question,” Medler said.

She doesn’t want to speculate, especially as schools and districts start to address how to fill in gaps that have widened this past year and create more learning opportunities following disruptions caused by the pandemic. She also noted that there are still a lot of unknowns.

For instance, it’s unclear what participation in CMAS will look like this spring and whether the federal government will approve waivers for a scaled-back approach to testing. And though the state has a good idea of where schools and districts on performance watch stand because of local data analysis, it’s hard to know where they stand compared to other districts without statewide data, Medler said.

CDE also doesn’t yet know how or when accountability will come into play again, Medler said. The state board is charged with deciding how to administer the state accountability system.

Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1, located in the southwest corner of the state, is among those districts currently on priority improvement. Superintendent Lori Haukeness, who has led the rural district for four years, said the district has already had conversations about participating in a request-to-reconsider process and using district assessment data to help inform the district’s rating.

The district is frozen in year two of priority improvement, Assistant Superintendent Carol Mehesy said.

Both administrators are confident that without a pandemic, their district would have excelled and qualified to move off priority improvement status. They noted that two elementary schools on performance watch, Mesa Elementary School and Kemper Elementary School, were slated to improve based on the district’s internal monitoring. 

The district of about 2,700 students was only 0.7 points away from rising to a district-level improvement plan in the 2019-20 school year, a deficit Mehesy predicts it would have filled with improvements at other schools.

The district has had challenges with student performance in math, especially among fourth and fifth graders. Lack of achievement and lack of growth in math were reflected in both CMAS exams and local assessments.

Montezuma-Cortez School District’s rating has fluctuated over the past several years. This year, the pandemic has made the fight to improve more difficult. Although the district has managed to keep its classrooms open for in-person learning for most of the school year, one third of students have taken courses remotely through Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, a state-supported online program meant to supplement districts’ online offerings.

Along the way, the district has identified gaps in reading and math across grade levels — gaps it will work to close through robust summer school, Haukeness said.

Other top priorities to help the district make gains will involve rolling out an aggressive recruitment strategy to draw highly qualified teachers into schools next fall and introducing an online extension for parents who want to keep their kids in remote learning. 

And along with intensive summer programming, the district’s building administrators will lay out a 90-day plan to be launched at the start of the next school year. That plan will focus on how to teach students at grade level while also addressing learning gaps, Haukeness said.

It’s hard for Mehesy to say when the district may succeed in jumping off performance watch, in part because of uncertainty about when accountability will once again be enforced.

But exiting the state’s watch list is only the start of the district’s ambitions.

“We view getting off the clock as a floor for our performance, not a ceiling,” Mehesy said.

At Peakview School, part of Huerfano School District Re-1 to the east of Montezuma-Cortez School District, Archuleta, the school’s principal, emphasized how much the pandemic has challenged an already difficult school dynamic.

Peakview School, shown here in a March 23, 2021 photo, is a preschool through eighth grade school in Walsenburg. Principal Meghan Archuleta believes the school would have moved off the state accountability clock had students been able to take CMAS exams last spring. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The school, which serves between 325 and 350 students in preschool through eighth grade, has a high mobility rate. And like Montezuma-Cortez School District, the rural school struggles to attract and retain quality teachers. It also constantly lags a step behind because of funding challenges, Archuleta said.

The school has chronically failed to meet state expectations, almost dating back to when Colorado launched its accountability system in 2009. It has moved up and down the scale ever since, at one point bottoming out with a turnaround rating.

But even after the challenges of a pandemic year, Archuleta remains focused on improving student engagement, creating a consistent learning atmosphere and closing the gaps exposed by the coronavirus. That said, she anticipates the school will be on performance watch a little bit longer than expected.

“But we are not going to live there,” she added. “We are going to come off of that clock.”


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