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School district: ‘… doing the right work’

Staff Writer

The Colorado Department of Higher Education’s 2012 Remedial Education Report was released last month to the Legislature by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and while Colorado graduates showed some slight improvement over last year the numbers are still discouraging.

Overall, 40 percent of the Colorado high school students who graduated in 2011 were assessed as needing remediation or were enrolled in remedial classes in at least one subject once they got to college, prompting Garcia to state, “Remediation is rightly a serious concern for educators, policymakers, parents and students.”

Breaking it down by institution type, 66 percent of students who enrolled in a community college were not ready to work at the college freshman level in at least one subject, while only 24 percent of students at a four-year institution needed remediation. Most students required remediation in mathematics (51 percent), followed by writing (31 percent) and reading (18 percent).

In March, Lyn Dryburgh wrote a letter to the editor of the SUN critical of the state of the local school system and referred SUN readers to a website (www.coloradoschoolgrades.com) where they could find out how each school in the district compares to the rest of the state.

According to the website, Pagosa Springs Elementary School has been in a state of decline for the last three years, earning a C minus this year, and was ranked 779 out of 998 elementary schools in the state. The school earned a D plus for growth in reading skills.

Pagosa Springs Middle School had the best grade in the district with a B and was ranked 90 out of 491 middle schools, but as far as improvement over the last three years, it has remained flat.

Pagosa Springs High School was ranked 171 out of 327 schools and earned a C. In addition, only 87 percent of PSHS students graduated within four years, and 52 percent of the local students who continued their education after graduation had to take remedial classes during their freshman year of college.

When Superintendent Mark DeVoti was asked to comment, he replied, “I am happy to talk about student growth and performance, based on the recognized indicators Colorado school districts use (CDE, their accountability site Schoolview.org, NWEA and TCAP results, etc.), but will not edify a ‘letter to the editor’ with any reference in an interview.  I could have done that in a reply letter to the editor.  Since we do not use the site referenced in the letter to the editor, I have no cause to give it credence either, through any reflection on it. Regarding that site, the district really has no comments other than, ‘We measure longitudinal student growth and achievement through the CDE recognized Schoolview.org, which also provides our trend data and regional and statewide comparisons of our schools.  We do this also and through our analysis of formal evaluations in which our students participate.’”

However, the website DeVoti mentioned is full of technical information that is hard to understand without a master’s degree in education, while the website Dryburgh referred to states, “Colorado School Grades worked with the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado at Denver and R-Squared Research, LLC, to calculate the grades using the exact same variables and weights as the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework. The key difference between Colorado School Grades and the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework are the categories and the cut scores that are used to determine placement in a category.”

In other words, the CDE divides schools into only four categories based on what type of plan they need to submit to the state — Performance, Improvement, Priority Improvement or Turnaround — and uses lenient guidelines for placing schools into those categories. For example, the top 70 percent of schools go into the Performance category while only the lowest 2.4 percent go into the Turnaround category.

The Colorado School Grade site uses the same data, but divides schools based on the traditional A-F grading scale, and is much easier for the average person to navigate and understand.

Furthermore, a check of the CDE website (www.schoolview.org) revealed that the deadline for individual school districts to submit improvement plans was April 15, 2013, and the state was still in the process of uploading the new data, so it was unavailable to the public. The data currently posted is from 2011.

A call to the ASD office revealed DeVoti was out of town and would not be back in his office until May 13, but Assistant Superintendent Linda Reed was willing to give SUN staff a copy of what has been sent to the state for this year. She also agreed to sit down for an interview to explain what it means.

Reed provided copies of five improvement plans — one for each school (including the alternative high school program at the Archuleta County Education Center) and one for the district as a whole.

The plan for the high school reveals that PSHS meets or exceeds all performance indicators except two — academic growth gaps and ACT composite scores (the state average ACT score was 20.1 while the average for PSHS students was 19.4). The graduation rate is actually 90.6 percent and exceeds the state minimum of 80 percent. However, this figure includes those students who take more than four years to graduate, even those who graduate after staying in high school for seven years.

However, unlike the Colorado School Grade website, on the CDE report none of the performance indicators for post-secondary/workforce readiness dealt with students who needed remedial classes when they went to college.

Reed was asked if she had that number and she replied, “We do, and we haven’t shared that with the board of education yet, so until I do that I really can’t share that with you, but it’s not where we want it to be. It absolutely is not. It’s worse than the state’s number.”

Nonetheless, the improvement plans for the high school and the middle school both state, “Based on preliminary results, the school meets or exceeds state expectations for attainment on the performance indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Performance Plan.”

The plan for the district as a whole says the same thing. Schools that are required to submit a Performance Plan are in the highest of four categories, however, this category does include the top 70 percent of the state’s schools.

The type of plan a school is assigned is based on the school’s overall performance framework score and includes such factors as achievement, growth, growth gaps, and post-secondary/workforce readiness.

Reed explained that achievement refers to the percent of students who were either proficient or advanced on this year’s TCAP (the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program — the state’s standardized test that every student from the third to the tenth grade takes every year). Growth refers to how much each student’s score improves over a three-year period. Growth gaps refers to a comparison between the growth for the overall school population and certain subsets of students, such as special education or minorities. The post-secondary/workforce readiness performance framework only applies to the high school and is measured by graduation rate and ACT scores.

“I think overall we are doing well,” Reed said. “We are in a period of tremendous transition as a state as far as schooling is concerned. One of the things we have done as a district is to look at the big picture and see beyond where we are right now, knowing where we are going, and bringing people to that place.”

Reed explained that part of the problem is the TCAP is a transitional test. In recent years, the state has adopted new standards, so while schools transition from old to new standards, the test is designed to cover material from both systems.

However, ASD made the decision as a district to adopt the new standards all at once instead of slowly making the transition, so the TCAP only covered about a fourth of what local students were taught. The rest of the test covered the old material, so the district expected students to score low until the test catches up to what local students are being taught.

Teaching what needs to be taught instead of just teaching to the test is a good policy.

However, as a result, the plan for the elementary school states, “Based on preliminary results, the school is approaching or has not met state expectations for attainment on the performance indicators and is required to adopt and implement an Improvement Plan.” According to the CDE criteria, only schools in the 10 to 30 percentile range are required to submit such a plan.

“The great majority of our teachers say kids are changing,” Reed continued. “What they bring to school is different from what they brought to school five years ago from a socioeconomic situation, from an emotional situation, from just the things they are exposed to in the media and the technology they use. There’s a whole lot of research that says kids brains are working differently than they did twenty years ago.

“We have to adapt as educators to that. Kids are no longer compliant just because we as adults tell them to be, so we have to work at engaging them in learning. There are some kids that just love to learn, and then there are some kids who don’t really see the benefit of going to school. They don’t see how it’s going to make their life better.

“As a district we have been very proactive about looking at what kids need to know and be able to do. We are cutting edge in so many ways. We are doing very well given the fact that 60 percent of our kids come to school without preschool. Having kids that are behind when they walk in the door makes the job that much harder. We have significantly more students for whom English is their second language, which makes learning more of a challenge.

“Given the challenges that we have, we are doing very well. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not. We have lots of work to do, and I think we are doing the right work.

“There are always going to be people who have never stepped foot in our schools, yet can be very critical of them, but they have absolutely nothing to base it on other than what they see in the media, and that’s sad. If folks come into our schools and see the great things that are happening, they would understand that we are different than what they see or what they believe.”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on May 9, 2013.