data dump

Find your 2017 Colorado SAT and PSAT scores

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Use Chalkbeat’s database to search for your school’s average composite score on the SAT and PSAT. Colorado juniors take the SAT, while sophomores take the PSAT. Both tests are supposed to gauge college readiness. The highest score on the SAT is 1600 and the highest score on the PSAT is 1520. For more details on the high school tests, read our report here.

First Person

Like most superintendents, I cared a lot about test scores. Too much, it turns out.

GRAMMY Career Day at Camden Creative Arts High School in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage for NARAS)

One of Paymon Rouhanifard’s earliest initiatives after becoming superintendent of Camden, New Jersey, schools in 2013 was to design a “school information card” that spelled out each school’s test scores in a family-friendly format. By the time he left the district this year, the cards were no longer being produced.

In this piece, delivered as a speech at the MIT School Access and Quality Summit on Tuesday, Rouhanifard explains why he did away with the cards against the advice of his team — and what that means, in his view, for the future of how children in high-need communities are educated. His personal evolution mirrors one that many in the education reform world are undergoing, as they increasingly reckon with the results of their own focus on test scores.

About five months ago, I stepped down from the best job I’ve ever had, superintendent of Camden, New Jersey. For those of you who don’t know much about Camden, it’s a big little city. There are about 80,000 residents. Fifteen thousand school-age children.

Similar to cities like Detroit, Camden has yet to recover from the postindustrial decline of the 1960s and 1970s. The challenges we inherited with our school system are rooted in decades of poverty, born out of centuries of injustice.

In March 2013, Gov. Chris Christie initiated a state intervention in Camden. And in August, I started as the first permanent superintendent subsequent to that very consequential change in governance. I was the 13th superintendent over the prior 16 years.

And that turnover was emblematic of the very problem we were aiming to address. Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing. Whiplashing changes were the norm. I saw the vestiges in just about every classroom I visited.

Our theory of action was relatively straightforward, and one we continually discussed with our community.

We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools, but one that instead focused on regulating the system. That involved us asking high quality non-profit charter organizations to help turn around existing schools and serve our broader city as neighborhood schools, all while steadily improving our district schools on a parallel track.

During that time, I’m proud of what we accomplished.

  •  We reduced the district’s dropout rate by almost 50 percent.
  •  We reduced suspensions by over 50 percent.
  •  We developed a common enrollment system that makes life easier for families.
  •  We initiated over $340 million in capital repairs to dramatically improve neglected facilities.

Perhaps what I’m most proud of is how we went about our work. We built large coalitions of support, from our elected officials to community leaders to parents and students. While there was certainly some pushback, we undeniably left with more allies than skeptics.

But what I want to discuss with you today is not how we got to this point, but how we can get significantly get better moving forward.

This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience — specifically, how I came to discover the underpinnings of our work are fraught with complications, requiring change and improvement.

What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make. Systems we utilize to evaluate schools, teachers, and students. Just about every person in this room regularly engages with these data.

My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us. What they didn’t tell us. And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on two state tests.

So I’ll skip to the part where about two years ago I made the decision to do away with our school information card, Camden’s school report card, an accountability tool that many other cities utilize in some shape or form.

I’m intentionally using the word “I” because, well, every last person on our remarkably talented leadership team was against it. And I can understand that on many levels.

There’s a formidable intellectual argument driving state test-based accountability systems.

“A Nation at Risk” begat a decades-long effort to turn the flood lights on within high poverty school districts. Race to the Top ensured we not only knew the gaps in student achievement, but we had a plan of action. In many respects, this was critically important work.

Accountability shouldn’t be a four-letter word. The Camden school district we inherited had grappled with challenges of many varieties – fiscal, operational, to go along with teaching basic student reading, writing, and math skills. There simply wasn’t a meaningful focus on outcomes of any kind.

Across the country, we’ve attempted to create a KPI – a Key Performance Indicator – to ensure we’re tracking progress against one or two units of measurement. We focus our energies there. I get it.

When I was running the Office of Portfolio Management for the New York City Department of Education, I was a devout believer that every decision should be predicated on math and literacy tests.

But today I want to push a bit on this conventional wisdom – and challenge what I believe to be a shared set of assumptions within the education reform establishment that has gone mostly unquestioned. I want to explain why I felt eliminating our School Information Card in Camden was a very small step in the right direction.

My thinking began to evolve as a function of simple, passing conversations I had with a variety of different people in Camden. I’ll share a few snapshots. And while I’m certainly paraphrasing here, they capture the essence of what I heard.

  •  One of our very best eighth-grade math teachers tells me: “All I’m doing is collecting formative assessment data. Multiple times per month. I hardly have the time to analyze the data. Can we please just slow down the rapid assessment calendar?”
  •  In just about every high school student roundtable we held – and this is a self-selected, highly motivated group – a student would ask: “Superintendent, I love a good test, but all we’re doing is taking these multiple choice tests! Half the building shuts down and I can’t use the laptops in the library because they’re all being used for testing.”
  •  Questions I was asked by countless parents of middle and high school students: “How come there isn’t enough time in the day for Global Studies? Why don’t we offer a second foreign language? Or have year-round art and music?”
  •  The head of a charter organization once said to me: “It’s hard not to notice almost every school receiving a top rating on the School Information Card has a lower percentage of students with disabilities than ours. To meet our students’ needs, our school must invest in mental health clinics and other wrap-around services – which don’t generate quick test results. But they’re the right thing to do. Yet we would face closure based on this system. Not to mention fall out of favor with foundations like the City Fund.”
  •  Lastly, the CEO of a curriculum provider once told me that when they are working with schools that do heavy test prep – and these are of course mostly urban charter schools – they are invariably asked how they can reduce the curriculum’s “scope and sequence” by one month to make room for their test prep schedule. One entire month.

These questions, of course, cut to the core of the testing culture we’ve created.

We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized. We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an IEP. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.

I want to again be clear that the benefits of our current accountability constructs are real. In most of the schools I visit in Camden, there is a genuine drive for better math and literacy outcomes. This wasn’t the case just five years ago. And that applies to incredible efforts underway in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, Denver, and many other cities over the past 10 to 15 years. There’s no question about it.

But I also believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits. That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs. And that there’s a third way approach, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It’s not uncommon for there to be formative assessments every couple weeks in addition to weeks – sometimes months – of test prep in the late winter and early spring.

Even in some of our “highest performing schools,” there is insufficient access to foreign languages, the sciences, and the arts. And school budgets are not the primary driver of that.

And for our most vulnerable kids, we are assuming if test scores in two subjects don’t dramatically improve within a tight time horizon, we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We’re not playing the long game for our kids.

That is why I made the decision to eliminate Camden’s School Information Card. They only fortified the drawbacks of our current system.

I’ll go out on a limb – most everyone in this room wouldn’t tolerate what I described for their own children’s school. Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction – and usually with less overall time allotted to the school day.

I often share the “Is this OK for our own children” thought exercise with education reform friends and colleagues as it relates to testing, and it’s amazing how often I hear twisted logic.

Simply put: time spent on testing and test prep is not time spent on instruction. It’s time spent on testing. Often, we’ve become better at taking the assessments, but haven’t mastered the standards behind them.

The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.

What’s more, we say we’ve learned from No Child Left Behind, yet we invariably expect every three-year math and ELA proficiency curve to be on a slope to 100 percent.

When we do this, we incentivize very specific behavior – behavior that oversimplifies the challenges we’ve inherited. Challenges, again, born out of centuries of injustice that manifest themselves today through discrimination, over-criminalization, trauma, toxic stress, and the 30 million word gap. We’re not investing in mental health clinics. We cut scope and sequence in our curriculum. We forgo the sciences and the arts. School becomes less joyful.

As much as we’d like it to be, the public good that is education can’t be reduced to one or two data points measured in short time horizons. It’s so much more complex than that. This is, in essence, what Campbell’s Law teaches us. Donald Campbell, a social scientist, posited that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” “the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Put more simply, when deeply complex social and policy decision-making is reduced to a target, the target ceases to be a good measure.

I’ve said enough calling out the challenges, so it’s only fair to suggest a course of action.

First, high-stakes testing should be a dipstick to measure systems. Most of the rest of the developed world functions this way.

States could administer standardized tests like NAEP – meaning random samplings every two to three years. This would suffice. We would know the gaps. We could address inequities.

Second, while we’re over-assessing, paradoxically, we actually don’t have enough assessments.

I’ll provide an example to make this more concrete: Most high school state tests don’t account for critical science subjects like physics and chemistry. So given we measure what we value, not surprisingly, the majority of high schools in New York City don’t even offer physics. Think about that – in the midst of a supposed national STEM movement, that is a reality in the largest city in our country.

And we must also find normed ways to assess art and music. A society without access to healthy art and music education is problematic for vast swaths of our economy.

Third, we must build smarter tests. Tests, that, for example, address current challenges with race and class bias. In Louisiana, State Superintendent John White has piloted an innovative new state assessment that uses passages from books that students have already been exposed to in class, as opposed to something that’s brand new and just for the test.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them. This may sound like shades of grey, but it’s an important distinction. We need talented, thoughtful systems leaders who act with urgency, but don’t assume simple proficiency and growth scores in two subjects should immediately require structural change leading to seas of collateral damage and unintended consequences.

Altogether, the pursuit of better life outcomes for kids might just necessitate a slight depression in state test scores to focus more on instruction and other critical components of a child’s education. If life outcomes are indeed what we are about, we should welcome state test scores going down!

My bottom line is this: tests are critically important, particularly in math and literacy.

I’m not suggesting the pendulum should swing so far in the other direction. But two tests shouldn’t be what we are solving for day in and day out.

For years, we’ve found ourselves in a bitterly divisive discourse with entrenched camps. The political fights within education are well documented. We are prone to gravitating to echo chambers, dismissing the noise as political theater, filing the counter-arguments away as low expectations for children.

Here’s the thing: in my opinion, the strength of the education reform movement – the belief that we must fundamentally improve our country’s education systems – has little to do with dogma and ideology. Little to do with the policies we lead and the political battles we strive to win.

It is about the people themselves. It is about us and countless others who believe we must innovate. We must have higher expectations for children. We must strive for equity.

If you go back 20 years, it would have been hard to conceive of a gathering like this. Or the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Or where the charter movement is today.

If we were to recognize this as our strength, then it would be easier to let go of dogma, challenge our assumptions with honesty and humility in constant pursuit of the truth. Of better ideas. Of higher educational attainment and income mobility for those born into poverty.

I’ll leave you with the most obvious advice you’ll hear today at this conference: you are a function of who you spend time with.

I was deeply shaped by the past five years because I was really in it. The best thing that ever happened to me – and the hardest – was being thrown into the deep end in Camden and left to my own devices.

I spent the vast majority of my time out of my echo chamber and in our community, in our schools. Football and basketball practices. Teacher and student roundtables. I wasn’t a great steward of our central office. I didn’t spend enough time with funders. Or with policymakers and think tanks. And that’s alright.

Being here today, I’m clearly making up for lost time.

I say this to say that we should spend more time with front-line practitioners. With people who disagree with us. While carrying a mindset of being open to disconfirming our most strongly held beliefs, rather than just affirming what we already believe to be true. This is certainly applicable to our broader, much more complex political divide.

Paymon Rouhanifard was the superintendent of schools in Camden, New Jersey from 2013 to June 2018.

proposed path

Facing potential loss of control, Adams 14 wants to show the state how the district might improve

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

In meeting after meeting in recent weeks, Adams 14 district leaders repeated the sad statistics about their district’s shortcomings, from poor attendance to low state test scores.

Acknowledging those problems and talking about the district’s failures is taking a toll on staff and on the community. But district leaders hope that by being open they can keep some control over a situation in which they might ultimately end up with none.

Adams 14, a district of about 7,500 students north of Denver, has a hearing before the Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday at which state officials must decide what steps to order Adams 14 to take to try to finally improve the struggling district.

The state board already approved an improvement plan last year, but it hasn’t shown enough results. Now district officials must answer why — and prove they can do better given more time.

Among the board’s most extreme options, they could choose to dissolve the local district and start a process to combine it with neighboring districts. A review panel has recommended a different, but potentially also drastic option: to turn over management of the district and its schools to an outside group.

Accountability Pathways

  • For more on the state’s options as it decides the fate of Adams 14, click here.

Such a takeover has never happened in Colorado, and it’s not clear exactly what that would look like. Colorado law does not allow for the complete state takeover that has happened in other states, but whatever comes next will represent a new chapter for Adams 14, its control over its schools, and its relationship with the community.

There are varying degrees of authority that the district could be forced to give up. The local Adams 14 school board has pushed district staff to write a proposal that leans towards the more extreme end of the scale, giving up more control than has happened before. The proposal was finalized this week, but given how quickly the district had to create it, there are still missing details that might answer questions about what the plan would mean for Adams 14 staff and students.

There is not much concrete evidence that outside groups can make a difference for low-performing schools or districts, and in some cases, there is evidence they can strip a community of their voice and local power.

For now, what is known is that Adams 14 is proposing to hire two external managers. One would oversee district systems and would have authority over the superintendent, but would still answer to the existing, locally elected Adams 14 board. The second external manager would be hired specifically for Adams City High School, the district’s lowest performing school, which is facing state intervention itself. That manager would have authority over the principal and staff and would answer directly to the Adams 14 board, not the superintendent.

“The district does need help,” Barb McDowell, the district’s union president acknowledges. “We just hope whoever is chosen to be the external manager allows us to remain local and public.”

If the state board allows the district to try its proposed plan, a lot of what comes next could depend on who the district hires as that outside manager.

The groups under consideration include the University of Virginia program known as Partnership for Leaders in Education, the University of Denver, and Mass Insight. Local school board members also asked staff to look into working with KIPP, the national charter network that is proposing to open a school in Adams 14.

The district would go through a bidding process that could start as soon as next week to vet outside groups.

But at least some people, including Bill Hyde, one of the Adams 14 board members, question whether the district should make that selection.

“If the conclusions of the state review panel and the results of the community survey … are accurate and valid regarding Adams 14’s insufficient leadership, vision, and sense of urgency, it seems incredible (that is, not credible) or at least misguided, to ask that same leadership to provide a plan for the district’s future,” Hyde wrote. “I encourage the [State Board of Education] to reserve for itself the decision of selecting an external manager.”

Another option Hyde and teachers union members are supporting would be to select the neighboring district of Mapleton Public Schools as the external manager. Mapleton serves about 9,000 students in a model that requires all students to choose their school and has a state rating of “improvement,” which is one rating above Adams 14’s. This option cedes control but not to a charter organization.

“I have not heard or seen any other proposal that comes close to this one in terms of efficacy, likelihood of success, and simplicity of operation and management,” Hyde wrote. “Choice is something that our community wants, and a portfolio management model would fit our needs in that regard.”

And, Hyde pointed out, it is supported by the teachers union and the community. Yvonne Bradford, director of Central Adams Uniserv, a collection of teachers unions, sent Hyde an outline of Mapleton’s interest. District officials confirmed their interest.

Bradford wrote that Mapleton’s superintendent “wants to help Adams 14 get systems and structures in place. She wants to collaborate with parents and staff at each school to see what kind of school they want and then help make that happen.”

She added: “She does not want a precedent set that outside private money comes into Colorado, takes the money, and the district is no better off when they leave.”

Evidence on the effectiveness of outside groups, especially for turning around an entire district, is limited.

When Adams 14 officials asked experts from the state education department for examples of what external management could look like, one example they pointed to was the turnaround of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The 33-school district in the suburbs of Boston became the first in that state to face state control. In 2012, the state appointed a “receiver” who took over the duties of the district’s superintendent and local governing board.

That appointed leader answered directly to the state commissioner of education and was given authority to bypass the district’s union contract, including to expand the school day and year, change teacher pay, and fire some district staff.

With that oversight, the district partnered with five groups to run six of the lowest performing schools in the district. The partners included the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union group, and some charter schools. The district also contracted with several additional groups that provided more specific resources such as after-school programs or teacher training. The district slowly gave all schools more autonomy and flexibility.

Research on the effects of that turnaround are mixed, although some say it is one of the better examples of a successful district turnaround. Test scores did rise soon after the changes and graduation rates have improved, but some challenges remain. The state is now in the process of transitioning control back to a local board.

Brett Alessi, who helped lead that work and is co-founder of Empower Schools, says that the work outside groups do isn’t special, but can help change the discussions — and the urgency — around change.

“Everything we did in Lawrence, a superintendent and school board can do, the question is why aren’t they doing these things,” Alessi said. “It’s just hard for them. That threat of real action can be a motivator to think about new changes as opposed to just bringing in a new superintendent or a new curriculum.”

Domingo Morel, a political scientist who criticizes state takeovers of school districts from his research on the political impact for local communities, says the key is for state officials to work with communities to empower them instead of taking away their voice.

“Usually when you have a third-party organization, you’re just shielding them from democratic pressure,” Morel said. “When you have communities that want to have a say, those avenues are not there for them, then it becomes highly problematic.”

And, he said, local communities must work together.

“Looking at the state for a solution is probably not going to work,” Morel said. “Based on history, it’s not likely.”

In Adams 14, rising tensions around the state’s possible actions and the upcoming vote on the proposed KIPP school have divided the community.

Many parents who are supportive of KIPP — and drastic state actions — have shied away from the public process after, they say, teachers have confronted them about their views. But other community members, including Timio Archuleta, who stepped away from the school board president role this summer, have criticized parents who “only want to complain” but don’t get involved in their schools.

This year, state officials have sought more public feedback for the State Board’s decision. The district has also held several meetings with different community members and groups to gather feedback.

A group of education advocates this week signed a report that includes a list of recommendations for the district and state to consider as they decide on the fate of Adams 14. Among those recommendations, they ask that the district be pushed to continue to engage the community throughout the process, and to develop systems to better communicate to families their students’ expectations.

Morel said all voices are important in the process for improving schools, but he said the idea that some people don’t care is a myth.

“As parents, we are concerned for our child that particular year,” Morel said. “That voice is more likely to be in favor of a short-term fix. Community organizations that are concerned not just about this year, but 10 years from now, that voice is also important in the conversation.”

Check out the district’s prepared presentation to the state, below, and the full concept paper, here.