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Opposing Forces

Last week, a policy fight related to how struggling students should be counted and used in rating schools broke out at the state level, pitting education professionals on one side against education reform and civil rights groups on the other.

The heart of the argument was technical and wonky in nature, but provides some insight and a preview of fights ahead as Colorado (and other states) decides how it will navigate a new federal landscape which allows much more state level flexibility.

In this particular case, the issue involved the state accountability system – which is used to keep track of how students are doing and then acknowledge or punish schools and districts according to the results.  The old federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required fairly detailed reporting on different student “sub-groups,” such as race, disability, and language status.

The politics on NCLB always made for strange bedfellows. Republicans liked the testing and accountability provisions, and civil rights groups liked the detailed reporting for minorities and types of students who have traditionally struggled on exams.

The problem, at least according to education professionals (like teachers and school administrators) was that the NCLB system required schools which serve the most diverse and at-risk students were to be held to a much higher level of accountability than those whose student body is less diverse, and that a single student who failed to meet the “proficiency” designation (or failing to make growth) on the test could be counted multiple times against a school.

For example, let’s say a school has a student who is Hispanic, has a disability, is learning English, and qualifies for Free/Reduced Lunch (a measure of student poverty) and this student failed to reach proficiency and growth targets.  Rather than just being counted against the school once, this student would be counted against the school four times – once for each of the subgroups they fell into.

Former Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond convened a statewide workgroup to study the state’s accountability system and this group recommended changes where the hypothetical student described above would only be counted against a school once, though data on all the different subgroupings would still be made publicly available.

Education professionals have long cried foul about the state’s accountability system, and how it unfairly targets and shames schools serving the most at-risk student populations and this multiple counting issue is part of that problem.

The coalition of education reform and civil rights groups protested strongly against the proposal to only count these students once and successfully lobbied the state board of education into backing away from it.

The heart of the disagreement stems from how strongly these reform and civil rights groups feel about test-based accountability.  Their argument might be summarized as follows: If we test all students against high academic expectations, publicly report those results, and then establish firm consequences for schools failing to succeed – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.

This theory underlies the entire testing and ranking approach that was baked into NCLB and that the country has been following for almost 15 years.

Education professionals have long pushed back against the NCLB accountability-driven approach, countering with a different theory.  To summarize that thinking:  If we provide high quality instruction, engage the learner, support the educator, and mitigate the damaging effects of poverty – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.

While I’m admittedly oversimplifying, note that the desired ends between these groups are (basically) aligned, but the approaches to achieving this result differ dramatically.

How this argument has played out is important because it portends an even greater conflict looming for the state.  In late 2015, NCLB was replaced with a new federal education law called the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.

ESSA provides states much wider latitude to determine things like testing, accountability, and what punishments would be handed down to struggling schools.  The question now is whether or not our state will actually use any of that latitude.

Looking ahead, I expect we’ll see a strong push from education professionals to significantly revise the NCLB-era accountability system under which the state currently operates.  I expect we’ll also see a similar strong push from education reform and civil rights groups to make sure nothing changes.

Of course, what is needed is a reasonable and fair compromise.  We do need to make adjustments to the state accountability system which unfairly blames and shames schools serving high concentrations of diverse and impoverished students.  We also should maintain a transparent system of accountability that both pressures and supports underperforming school systems to get better.

I’d like to say I’m optimistic – but I’m not.  In an all-too-familiar-refrain, years of bitter argument on this issue divides and polarizes both sides, making a compromise path difficult to find.  In addition, the state agency naturally poised to lead this discussion (the Colorado Department of Education) is a wounded and understaffed bureaucracy, now with its fourth Commissioner in a year and still in the wake of several high level resignations.

At this point, no one is quite sure what will happen.  However, everyone is certain we’ve got our work cut out for us as a state.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on 6.15.16.

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