Colorado Ponders District-Accountability Benchmarks

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Colorado districts that failed to raise student scores on state tests and fell short in other school performance areas would lose their accreditation, under a proposal the state school board is to vote on this week.

Unlike accountability laws in some other states, the plan would not give the state the authority to run ailing districts. Still, the proposal would mark the first time that Colorado districts would be accredited based on state-mandated student-performance goals.

"What we're doing is bolting in place an accountability measure that gives meaning to our standards," Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney said in an interview. "Without something bad happening, nothing changes."

But not everyone shares the commissioner's enthusiasm. In a region of the country where local control is a bedrock political philosophy, the move is seen by some as a dangerous precedent. Others argue that the new rules would set up low-wealth districts for failure.

"I just think it runs against the grain of the [state] constitution and the historical operation of schools," said Democratic Sen. Bill Thiebaut, who predicts a court challenge of the larger state accountability law. "Local boards and schools should decide what to do."

Benchmarks Proposed

Colorado lawmakers passed their district-accountability law earlier this year. The state board of education, however, was given the task of approving the benchmarks by which districts will be measured.

Mr. Moloney released his proposed "accountability indicators" earlier this month, and the state board is slated to vote on the plan Dec. 10. If the measure passes, the state department of education will spend the next few months translating the policy into regulations.

Under Mr. Moloney's plan, the Centennial State's 176 school districts would be rated as "accredited," on "academic watch," on "academic probation," or "not accredited," based on the following criteria:

  • Student performance on state assessments;
  • Dropout, attendance, expulsion and suspension, and graduation rates;
  • The percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses;
  • The percentage of students exempted from the assessment program; and
  • Results of district-administered tests.

Under the proposal, districts would receive their first ratings after a three-year evaluation period beginning July 1 of next year. To be accredited, a district would have to post a 25 percent increase in the percentage of students who scored at the "proficient" or "advanced" level on state tests given in grades 3, 4, 8, and 10.

The baseline for test scores would come from the first versions of the test, which were given last year.

Goals set by the district on the other performance indicators would also have to be met.

The plan does not call for fiscal penalties or other punitive action for unaccredited districts. And even if a system lost its accreditation, it would still be able to accredit its own schools, Mr. Moloney said.

"What if a district doesn't care? There's nothing we can do under current law," he said. "But I have a lot of faith in local people, and I'm sure they will care."

Time, Money

Some school observers say that districts need more than time to raise low scores.

About 40 percent of the state's 52,000 4th graders scored below proficient on the reading portion of their grade-level test last spring.

In addition to time, districts need more financial aid, those wary of the plan argue.

"Wealthy districts will perform better, and poor districts will perform worse," Sen. Thiebaut predicted. "A lot of that will be attrib utable to the fact that [poor districts] can't compete."

Despite the promise of a tough district-level accountability policy, school groups are not optimistic that the new requirements will be accompanied by more state aid.

Colorado's per-pupil spending was $732 behind the national average of $5,889 in the 1996-97 school year. In addition, lawmakers have been more eager to steer budget surpluses into tax breaks than to schools.

"Colorado has high standards for what children should know and do. It's our collective hope that once we show we're meeting the test, there will be more funding," said Steven J. Pratt, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

"I'm not sure that will happen." Mr. Pratt added.

'Mile Wide'

Commissioner Moloney counters that improving student performance is more about setting priorities and high expectations than raising spending.

"Districts will have to manipulate their use of time, and some things will have to go," he said, to make way for such essentials as developing early literacy skills.

"The trend line will be narrower focus and greater intensity," the state chief said. "Right now, we're a mile wide and an inch deep."

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 20, 22

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Colorado Ponders District-Accountability Benchmarks
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