Local schools get good, bad news

Grades show low, mediocre results from state agency

For students, revealing the semester's report card to a parent can be cause for either celebration and high-fives or trepidation and sweaty palms.

But for the moment, the tables have turned. Rather than giving out grades, it's the schools themselves under the microscope.

According to a report issued last month by Colorado School Grades, a coalition of 18 foundations and advocacy groups, most public schools in Montezuma County held steady or trended slightly worse in academic year 2011-12 compared to 2010-11.

It's the second time Colorado School Grades has published rankings for elementary, middle and high schools around the state. With help from R-Squared Research and the University of Colorado-Denver, the coalition inspects Colorado Department of Education statistics and generates its own grading scale - in the familiar A to F lettered format - intended to be more user-friendly. The statistics are accessible to the public and broken down in more detail on the coalition's website.

Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds - one of the 18 groups involved - says the scale is a more rigorous and accurate depiction of school quality. By CDE's, 70 percent of schools, from the 30th to 100th percentile, are considered "performance", the top category. To Colorado School Grades, 30th percentile entails a C grade.

"Parents would never accept rampant grade inflation in the classroom that gives 70 percent of the students an A grade, and we don't think they should have to accept a state ranking system that does the same thing with schools," Taylor said in a December statement.

Other coalition partners include the Colorado Children's Campaign, Stand for Children, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, Get Smart Schools and the Walton Family Foundation.

Not everybody is a fan. The A-F scale has drawn criticism from the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents some 2,000 principals and superintendents.

CASE executive director Bruce Caughey believes CDE's accountability benchmarks, reformed in 2009, are adequate. Plus, he said, the state offers a comparable, easy-to-read website in SchoolView.org.

"Do we really need the privately developed School Grades metric to judge a school's performance, particularly when their system is based on an arbitrarily determined bell curve?" he said by email.

To calculate the Colorado School Grades, researchers take into account academic achievement (test scores), growth (progress over previous scores) and growth gaps (accounting for disadvantaged subgroups like low-income, minority, special needs and English-learning students). Growth is given the most weight. High schools also incorporate "college and career readiness", which tracks graduation rates, dropout rates and ACT scores.

The report was fairly dismal for Montezuma-Cortez Re-1.

The only school that improved was Kemper Elementary, from a rock-bottom score of F to D-, equal to Manaugh Elementary. Mesa Elementary held steady at C-. Lewis-Arriola Elementary and Cortez Middle School were the district's best performers, each earning C grades, although Lewis-Arriola dropped from a B last year. Montezuma-Cortez High School dipped from a C- to D+, and was ranked 282 out of 327 high schools in the state.

Southwest Open School, the hands-on, field trip and project-based alternative school serving high-school age students, got a C- in its first year evaluated.

Data was unavailable for tiny Pleasant View Elementary and Battle Rock Charter School.

Superintendent Alex Carter is among the A-F scale's detractors, calling it "completely bogus". His objections are two-fold: first, the grading curve that assigns a predetermined number of schools to each letter grade, and second, that the graders are far removed from Southwest Colorado. He lambasted the findings as predictable, given that test scores and the socioeconomic level of a county are often correlated.

"There are no surprises (in the report). It's just another way for people to judge schools without stepping foot in them to see the (improvements) going on," Carter said. "Cortez Middle School has one of the best growth rates in the state. Kids go there and flat-out learn. So you have to question the methodology."

The diminutive school districts in Mancos and Dolores fared somewhat better. In Mancos Re-6, the elementary, middle and high schools received C, C+ and B grades respectively. Dolores was near identical, with both elementary and middle schools receiving marks of C+ and the high school a B.

No schools in Montezuma County received A+, A or A- distinctions, reserved for the top 10 percent, although Dolores High School garnered an A- in last year's report.

All three districts slipped down the CDE rankings compared to 2010-11. Of Colorado's 178 districts, Mancos dropped from 62nd to 78th and Dolores from an impressive 13th to 36th - still within the top quintile. Cortez fell near the bottom of the pack, dropping to 176th from 170th last year.

Re-1 is in year two of its five-year state-mandated plan to improve test scores. If progress isn't made by the 2015-16 academic year's end, the district risks losing accreditation and drawing sanctions from the CDE.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com