These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Colorado’s ESSA Plan: An Incomplete Pass

Originally appeared in Education PostPublished online: April 14, 2017, as “Colorado’s ESSA Plan Doesn’t Quite Get All Kids Across the Goal Line.

As Colorado updates its accountability system to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we have the opportunity to rethink how it provides both accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, the ESSA State Plan falls short.

David Griffith of the Fordham Institute wrote a recent blog post, Touchdown, Colorado! A school rating system that gets the basics right that glosses over some key concerns in Colorado’s school rating and accountability system. In an attempt to tackle his particular metaphor, while we may be able to call plays, we’re losing sight of the end zone.

I will not belabor the football analogy, but each of the components of Colorado accountability that David celebrates is a normative measure – a measure that tells us how students, schools, and districts perform relative to other students, schools, and districts. What we miss with normative measures is the chance to understand whether or not students are mastering particular content or skills, which is what we get when we use criterion-based measures. In Colorado, I can tell you which schools are moving the ball down the field (growth), but I can’t tell you how close they are to a touchdown or even how many yards they have moved (i.e. proficiency).

Previously, Colorado’s accountability system did incorporate measures that actually communicated to communities whether or not students were meeting the expectations that would set them up for college or career success.  Not so anymore.

For better or worse, most schools and districts in Colorado rely primarily on the state accountability system to provide information about school performance to families. And so, while we’re designing accountability systems to identify the lowest performing schools so that the state can make use of scarce resources and target interventions, we’re also asking it to be the primary way to communicate school performance to families and communities.

And this second front is where we are fumbling the ball.

None of these measures tell me whether students in a school are mastering the skills they will need to be successful in tomorrow’s world. I’m not sure if a school with an average score of 732 and a rating of “Approaching”, for example, is likely to teach my student to read on grade level.

As a broad coalition of Colorado education advocates explained in a letter to our Commissioner of Education recently, this is particularly inequitable for students who have not historically been expected or given opportunities to succeed at the levels of their more privileged peers. The standards movement has pushed the idea that there are important skills and concepts that every child should know regardless of their family background. Yet, this system does not communicate the likelihood that, say, black students are reaching those expectations as compared to their white peers.

It is difficult to tell if students are making sufficient progress each year to reach the academic expectations set forth for them if they are only being measured compared to students with the same history of academic performance. The model does not tell us that more growth than the kid down the street is enough growth to be on-track to reach grade-level expectations.

I agree with David that there are advantages to some of the normative measures (for example, every student, regardless of their achievement level, impacts a school’s average score; and average scale scores can be transformed and linked to national tests to create district comparisons across states), but there are also clear limitations.

Families want to find the “best” schools for their kids. “Best” might look different for each student and each family; “best” might include as many discussions about pedagogy and programming as it does proximity. But it is very difficult for families to find that “best” school for their student without full information, and I worry that the significant changes to Colorado’s proposed accountability system in its ESSA draft plan will complicate families’ access to information about how schools are serving students.  This is because I do believe that, not unlike the question of who will be the Broncos starting quarterback come September, the question about whether and how schools are educating our students is popular conversation fodder around many a Coloradan’s dinner table.

There are many paths forward that would strike a better balance between normative and criterion-based measures. Let us not lose sight of the fact that this system is as much about transparency as it is about accountability.

Until the state, districts, and schools can find better ways of communicating information about school performance to families, I think it is critical that this system include ways to show whether schools are truly preparing students for life after their time in K-12 classrooms. That would be a real touchdown.