This commentary was submitted by Andrea Mérida, a Denver school board member representing southwest Denver.
The ballyhoo over a new school grading website piqued my interest, so I surfed over to ColoradoSchoolGrades.com to check it out. After all, the power partners that have coalesced around the website’s development and launch know how to make a splash. And why wouldn’t I be interested in the fact that they’ve taken the pains to offer information in Spanish?
After just a few searches for some of the schools in my southwest Denver subdistrict, however, I see that this website is still using more of the same accountability blinders that punish schools and kids for their English-proficiency differences by trying to lump them all into the same bucket as native and fluent English speakers.
About English learners and proficiency
In accordance with state law, the Colorado Department of Education administers an English-language proficiency exam, the Colorado English Language Aquisition Proficiency Assessment (CELApro), to EVERY K-12 student yearly. As CDE states, “The primary purpose of the assessment program is to determine the level at which Colorado non-English proficient (NEP) and limited-English proficient (LEP) students meet the Colorado English Language Development Standards in four domains (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing).”
The English proficiency of each student is graded on a 1 to 5 scale: beginner (1), early intermediate (2), intermediate (3), proficient (4) and advanced (5). According to DPS Chief Academic Officer, Susana Córdova, an English learner is considered linguistically ready to take the CSAP/TCAP when they have achieved either a level 4 or 5.
However, even if a student is not linguistically ready to take the CSAP in English, their scores will be averaged into the district’s and state’s school performance framework, and consequently, into the ColoradoSchoolGrades.com website data. You can imagine how that pans out.
Worse, none of these “accountability tools” truly give full weight to the Spanish-language version of the CSAPs administered for 3rd and 4th grade, skewing the performance of elementary schools with high numbers of English learners in incredibly unfair ways.
Some pertinent examples
CDE provides information about the language proficiency for every designated English learner in the state, and I’ve used it to analyze the level of English proficiency for middle and high schools, which only administer the CSAP in English. In nearly every case, our schools that are classified as “yellow” (accredited on watch) all have high numbers of English learners that are below the “safe linguistic threshold” of a CELApro level 4 or 5. Here are a few examples:
For the purposes of this chart, I call those students at CELApro level 4 and 5 as “ready for CSAP.” As you can see from this small sampling, schools with high proportions of English learners are maligned by the ColoradoSchoolGrades.com website as substandard.
Clearly, the mission of schools with high proportions of English learners takes on a different perspective than schools with lower concentrations. While we all want students to grow and succeed, student growth must be reviewed under a different lens when student populations come from homes in which English is not the primary (or sole) language.
ColoradoSchoolGrades.com, therefore, unfairly glosses over this distinction and makes no attempt to inform parents of these nuances. When dealing with populations that have difficulty in English and who are regularly exposed to various types of hucksterism in their daily lives, it becomes all the more important for a website that purports to serve as a resource for parents to be fully transparent.
To do otherwise is irresponsible.
This type of data has been the basis for extremely high-stakes decisions made about kids, teachers and their schools. As I retrospectively consider last year’s board decision to phase out Montbello High School, for example, imagine how differently the school’s performance would have seemed had we considered the 25 percent of students who are not ready to take the CSAP in English. Not being a statistician, I will defer to those who can calculate the probability of a 25 percent bump in overall achievement if those scores are even just disaggregated from the whole. I wonder if the board’s decision would have been different if we knew then what I know now.
As the Northwest Community Committee pointed out to the board this week, among all the other goals Spanish-speaking parents find important in schools, they also consider learning English to be primary (see the Venn diagram on page 9). These parents know their children have particular needs, and they expect the policymakers to realize it, too.
I have regular conversations with my Spanish-speaking constituents in southwest Denver, who express worry over the performance of their schools. When I point out to Kepner Middle School parents, for example, that their school has been able to increase the rate of students at CELApro levels 4 and 5 by nearly 30 percentage points over the last four years, their relief is palpable.
And the former Rishel Middle School? In 4 short years, they increased the numbers of students at CELApro levels 4 or 5 by a whopping 40 percent. But there is no Rishel now; it’s been closed.
If the development team at ColoradoSchoolGrades.com really wants to be a resource for Spanish-speaking parents, they would do well to join me in peeling back the layers of the accountability onion in good faith and transparency so that ALL parents can make the right choices for their children.
This offer has no expiration date. Will ColoradoSchoolGrades.com take me up on it?