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Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as Plan for Grading Schools Sharply Debated in Colorado

Plan for Grading Schools Sharply Debated in Colorado

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Colorado schools would receive two letter grades—one based on their state test scores and the other on their safety records—under an education improvement measure working its way through the legislature.

Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, has deemed the bill his No. 1 priority this legislative session. It would grade schools on a scale of A to F, based on their results on the annual Colorado Student Assessment Program. It also would allow state officials to convert F-graded schools into independent charter schools, operated by any applicant approved by both the local school board and the state.

In its baseline year, the grades would be assigned based on a bell-curve system in which a majority of schools would earn B’s, C’s, and D’s, with the top 8 percent of schools statewide earning A’s, and the bottom 2 percent earning F’s.

Some Democratic lawmakers complain that such state involvement in F-graded schools would be heavy-handed and would violate Colorado’s long-standing tradition of local control. The level of detail on the grading system that is mandated by the 118-page bill is also troubling, they say.

"The governor is obviously trying to micromanage the local school districts," said Rep. Suzanne Williams, a Democrat on the House education committee. "The bill literally tells districts what font to use in the report cards, and how to fold them. That detail is completely contrary to how Colorado writes laws."

But Sen. Norma V. Anderson, a Republican, counters that the proposed report cards are designed to clearly communicate a school’s strengths and weaknesses to the public.

"This will create the competition that everyone is always calling for with vouchers, but it stays within the public school system," said Ms. Anderson, the bill’s Senate sponsor. "When you communicate your test scores, it creates more knowledge about the school and encourages the community to become more involved."

Gov. Owens, meanwhile, recently told lawmakers that he would be "hard pressed" to sign a school funding package if it was not accompanied by the reform bill. He also said he was prepared to call a special session if the measure wasn’t approved before May 3—the scheduled close of the regular legislative session.

With Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, some observers say such a move will likely not be needed. The Senate education committee passed the bill by a 4-3 vote Feb. 17. It faces amendments in the Senate appropriations committee before moving to the House.

Union Opposed

The Colorado Education Association has pledged to fight a provision in Mr. Owens’ proposal that he said would effectively eliminate teacher tenure by replacing current job protections for new teachers with individual contracts. The governor says the changes would make it easier to fire some teachers and allow districts to pay others more.

The measure would allow districts to offer new teachers contracts ranging from one to five years, and to renew or terminate those contracts at will. Under the current system, administrators are required to document unsatisfactory job performance and give veteran teachers time to improve before they can fire them.

Mr. Owens’ proposal would make Colorado less appealing than other states in an increasingly competitive national teaching market, argued Beverly G. Ausfahl, the president of the CEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"We don’t want poor-quality educators," she said. "But every other state in the nation has due-process provisions in their laws. You have to be informed of what you’re not doing correctly, and given a period of time to address it. If that changed,what would make any educator consider beginning their career in Colorado?"

Because the measure would effectively do away with required salary schedules for new teachers, it is designed to give districts more flexibility in hiring decisions, said Terri Rayburn, a senior education analyst for the governor. It would allow them to offer more lucrative contracts to the mathematics and science teachers who are particularly hard to recruit, she added.

Safety Grades Questioned

Some legislators have also expressed concern about the possible unintended consequences of assigning schools a separate safety grade based on such factors as the number of assaults, fights, and classroom suspensions a school reports, as the bill proposes. They say administrators might be less likely to appropriately punish disruptive students if they believed that such actions would reflect poorly in their grades.

After last year’s shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., shook up parents and community members throughout the state, the report card is a well- intentioned effort to try to make schools as safe as possible, Ms. Williams said.

"It’s just not there yet," the Democratic lawmaker added. "We need to find a different way to tell parents that schools are safe."

But Ms. Rayburn said she expected that most principals would be honest in their reporting practices.

"Obviously, people need to be aware what kids are bringing to elementary school," Ms. Rayburn said, referring to last week’s fatal shooting of a 1st grader by a classmate near Flint, Mich. "The information has to be there so that parents and community members can get engaged in the conversation."

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Pages 24,27

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