Who Is In Charge

Boards endorse social studies CSAPs

Colorado students should be tested on social studies at least three times during their K-12 careers, the state’s two top education boards proposed Monday.

The recommendation came as the State Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education agreed to a broad set of five “attributes” they want to see in a new state testing system to replace the current CSAPs.

A 2008 state law, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, requires creation of a new state testing system and specifically assigned the two boards to agree on a broad shape for the program by Dec. 15. The SBE also is scheduled to consider a more detailed description of the new system, also mandated by the law, at a meeting next week.

The language agreed on by the two boards reads: “Science and Social Studies will be measured at least once in elementary, middle and high school.” (The original staff recommendation included only science.)

The boards’ endorsement represents a victory for a group of education and business groups that have been lobbying to add social studies tests. But, Colorado students probably don’t need to worry about boning up on their civics books right away. New state tests aren’t expected to roll out any earlier than 2014, and adding a test – and the attendant costs – likely will raise questions and opposition, including in the legislature.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton

Two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster and Rep. Judy Solano, attended Monday’s joint meeting and warned against expanded testing.

“I’m very concerned about adding a new CSAP,” said Solano, the legislature’s leading critic of the current testing system. “We’ve talked about fewer.” Hudak noted that the legislature considered social studies tests in the 1990s when the CSAPs were developed and chose science over social studies because of cost.

Based on the dictates of that 2008 law, the new testing system is supposed to measure student progress toward “postsecondary and workforce readiness” – the ability to enter college or the workforce without academic remediation.

The testing system attributes agreed upon by the two boards include. (Read full document here):

• Summative tests (whatever replaces the current annual CSAPs): Math and language arts will be given in grades 3-11 plus the less-frequent social studies and science tests. Test results will be included on student transcripts, and SBE and CCHE will agree in the future on what specific scores indicate college readiness. The 11th grade test would be a national college readiness test of some type.

• Use of formative and interim tests by schools to gauge students’ progress between the annual tests. Such tests, widely used now in various forms, wouldn’t be used to measure district and school performance, as the annual tests are.

• Measurement of academic mastery in grades 1 and 2. Hudak and Solano raised concerns that this might lead to a “baby CSAP,” and the boards clarified the language in this attribute to ease such concerns.

• Creation of some sort of online database – the planners call it a “dashboard” – that students could use to track their postsecondary and workforce readiness throughout their school years.

The meeting, which packed both boards, various education bureaucrats, lobbyists and assorted onlookers into a stuffy, windowless conference room at the Department of Higher Education, got confusing at times as members of the two boards nit-picked their way through a draft of the attributes.

“Where are we?” CCHE member B J Scott of Colorado Springs asked at one point. She was dialed into the meeting by telephone.

State Board of Education member Peggy Littleton, R-5th District.

Seventeen amendments were proposed – 10 of them by outgoing SBE member Peggy Littleton, R-5th District – but only eight were adopted, just one of them Littleton’s. The major change, addition of social studies tests, was proposed by SBE member Marcia Neal, R-3rd District.

Littleton suggested an amendment that would launch social studies tests “when fiscally possible,” but that was defeated.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, moderated the discussion and, with varying degrees of success, tried to keep things moving. “Focus,” he told the group at one juncture.

The amendments were decided on by the whole group, and then each board voted separately to adopted the revised set of attributes. SBE members voted 4-0 to adopt. (Neal had to leave before the vote, and Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, and Vice Chair Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, couldn’t attend.) Six members of the 11-member CCHE participated – two in person and four on the phone. They voted 6-0 to adopt the attributes – after member Richard Kaufman had to be called back on Munn’s cell phone.

Staff members of the departments of education and higher education, along with advisory panels of educators and experts, have been working for more than a year to prepare recommendations for a new testing system. A subcommittee urged that social studies tests be added, but the main advisory committee didn’t agree.

Since then a coalition of education and business groups have been pushing for addition of the tests.

Walter Rakowich, CEO of ProLogis
Walter Rakowich, CEO of ProLogis

Walter Rakowich, CEO of Denver-based ProLogis, an international logistics and warehouse firm, testified at Monday’s meeting, saying, “Social studies is a crucial subject” in an increasingly interconnected world. He said the some of the firm’s Indian and Chinese employees “know more about American politics than our kids do.”

The current CSAP testing system requires students to take reading, writing and math tests in grades 3-10. Science tests are given in grades, 5, 8 and 10. All 11th graders take the ACT test.

CDE information about revision of the testing system

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”