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Denver Schools, Board in 'Power Struggle' Over Testing Policy

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In a test of Denver's new system of school-based management, several schools are engaged in what is being called a "power struggle'' with the board of education over the right to set testing policy.

A teachers' contract adopted last year, which was engineered by Gov. Roy Romer, established "collaborative-decisionmaking'' committees at each of the city's 110 schools and gave them broad authority over instructional and curriculum issues, faculty selection, and other matters.

But over the past two weeks, dozens of parents at several schools have organized a boycott and pulled their children out of school to protest a board-imposed revision of the district's testing program.

At the same time, the Denver Classroom Teachers' Association has filed a grievance, charging that the board violated the contract by failing to consult with the collaborative-decisionmaking committees in making the change.

And C.D.M. leaders in five schools, which have submitted petitions to eliminate some testing requirements and replace them with alternative forms of assessment, say that the board has set up obstacles preventing schools from receiving waivers from district rules.

"Personally, I think there are a few people on the school board who are threatened by the C.D.M. process,'' said Shari McMinn, the parent of a 5th grader at Montclair Elementary School. "This is a power struggle our C.D.M. did not seek.''

Dorothy Gotlieb, president of the school board, called the actions a case of "flexing muscles.'' She said the board has acted within its authority under the contract and under state law.

"We are the elected policymakers of the district,'' Ms. Gotlieb said. "We are doing our jobs.''

Adele Phelan, the head of a newly formed citizens' group that is expected this week to announce the formation of a resource center to assist the C.D.M.'s, said the center would aim to ensure that all groups work together.

"We think being adversarial will not help anybody's cause,'' she said.

Testing Waivers

At issue in the dispute is the unusual governance system established under the 1991 teachers' contract.

Written by Governor Romer in an extraordinary move to avert a strike, the document eliminates many traditional protections in exchange for giving teachers substantial decisionmaking authority. (See Education Week, April 3, 1991.)

Under the contract, each school established a C.D.M., which consists of the principal, four teachers, three parents, a non-teaching school employee, and a representative from the city's business community. Committees in high schools also have two student members.

Seizing the opportunity the contract provided, committee members from the Montclair school in November petitioned the board for permission to eliminate the district's testing requirements in grades K-2 and replace them with the use of alternative assessments, such as portfolios and performance-based tests.

Under the current policy, the school district administers the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in grades K-12, and a criterion-referenced test in grades 1-7.

"The board has the responsibility to set goals and standards,'' said Barbara Baker, the school's principal. "The school, collaboratively, has the responsibility to determine how to meet the standards.''

But at the time the school submitted its proposal, the district had not yet established a procedure for reviewing waivers. Administrators, with the assistance of the teachers' union, then developed such a procedure, and the Montclair committee resubmitted its petition.

The policy requires each petition to specify which rules it wishes waived, which new procedures it wishes to put in place to provide feedback to parents, and research supporting such changes. Once a petition is received, the board will appoint an ad hoc review committee to evaluate it, and then submit it to the board for final approval.

Since Montclair submitted its petition, four other schools have also sent in requests to waive certain testing requirements. But as of last week, the board had not acted on any of the requests, according to district officials.

Some C.D.M. members charged that the delay has come about because the process--which they claim was established without consultation with the committees--creates needless hurdles. In a letter sent to school-board members and to Superintendent of Schools Evie Dennis, 10 parents called the procedure "far from the spirit of the contract and ... an obstacle to reform.''

But Cheryl Y. Betz, an assistant superintendent of schools, denied that the administration is imposing obstacles on the waiver process. Rather, she said, the delays have come about because the system is new and officials want to make sure they do it right.

"This is new to everybody,'' she said. "Everybody is trying to be extra careful.''

'Hard To Teach'

But while the waiver disputes were going on, the board angered teachers and C.D.M. members by revising its testing policy.

Under the new policy, approved last month, schools would no longer administer the Iowa test in kindergarten, and could instead use one of three alternative assessments.

In addition, the policy permitted schools in which the median score on the criterion-referenced test was above the 75th percentile to scrap the use of "interval'' testing--in which tests are administered twice during each semester--and instead test only at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Schools in which the median score fell below that point would continue to administer the interval tests, for a total of seven administrations annually.

Ms. Baker, the Montclair principal, said the new policy was misguided.

"Nobody asked, as far as I know, practitioners about what are the best tools to assess kindergarten kids,'' she said.

Rae Garrett, the president of the teachers' union, said the board's action in adopting the new policy also violated the contract. It failed, she said, to reach a consensus with teachers and parents, as the contract provides.

"We had hoped, when we started out on the path of trying to implement the contract, that the school board was going to learn how to do collaborative decisionmaking,'' Ms. Garrett said. "A year later, it seems they are much harder to teach than the kids are.''

In response to the action, the union filed a grievance, asking the board to repeal the policy and convene a collaborative-decisionmaking committee to determine what the policy should be. Ms. Garrett said their case could be heard by an arbitrator by June.

'A Very Sad Value'

In addition to the union's action, parents in at least three schools organized to pull their children out of school on the day the interval tests were administered.

Ms. McMinn, who participated in the boycott at Montclair last month, said parents there went into school and conducted alternative classrooms for students.

"We need to concentrate on teaching kids, not testing them and taking them away from learning,'' she said.

Ms. Gotlieb, the board president, responded that the board's action was appropriate and was aimed at reducing schools' testing burden.

She added that the parents' boycott was teaching children "a very sad value.''

"I would certainly hope they reconsider their actions,'' Ms. Gotlieb said. "I feel the long-term effect of their actions is detrimental, to their children and to other students.''

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