State Board Tackles Not-So-Super Subgroups

Mondays are good days to roll up our sleeves and bury ourselves in education policy arcana. This Monday is a particularly good day to do that; on Wednesday, the Colorado State Board of Education will decide the fate of a complicated but important proposal related to our state’s school and district accountability system.

The proposal deals with the use of “super subgroups” (also called “combined subgroups”), which aggregate subgroups of students—minority, at-risk, English-language learner (ELL), and special education—into a single bucket for accountability purposes under Colorado’s school and district performance frameworks (SPFs and DPFs). Pushed by some school districts, interest groups, and the Colorado Department of Education, the shift toward combined subgroups is strongly opposed by a large, diverse coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum. Careful observers will note that one of those organizations is the Independence Institute, which I happen to be rather fond of.

Why is the Independence Institute involved? To understand that, you have to understand the issue in a little more detail. Brace yourself, thar be wonkery ahead.

If you’ve never heard of SPFs and DPFs, don’t worry. You’re not alone. They’re not super easy to find on CDE’s famously tricky website, and they’re definitely not easy to read if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The quick-and-dirty summary is that these documents and the rubrics they use form the backbone of how we rate our schools and districts—and how we present that information to districts, schools, and the public.

Districts are assigned to one of our state’s five accreditation categories. The same is true for schools, though the ratings have different names and the criteria are slightly different depending on whether the schools are elementary, middle, or high schools. To determine which category a school or district falls into, they are scored in a variety of areas. Each area provides a certain number of points, and the total number points earned in relation to the number of points available determines which rating a school or district gets. In keeping with that design, the current frameworks handle subgroups like this:

Note that the framework above (in this case for Thompson School District) provides points for overall performance in both academic achievement and academic growth, or progress toward academic progress goals relative to students’ academic peers. Then districts and/or schools are scored for “growth gaps,” which represent the progress those districts and/or schools are making when it comes to the subgroups I mentioned earlier. As you can see, each individual subgroup’s performance awards points separately.

Enter the proposed new frameworks. I apologize in advance for the bleeding eyes; annotated technical documents aren’t usually pretty.

Admittedly, there’s some good stuff in there. For one thing, the new frameworks disaggregate performance information by student subgroups for both academic achievement and academic growth. The previous frameworks only did so for growth. But notice that while performance information for individual subgroups is still available on the frameworks, points are only awarded through a “combined subgroups” category.

Therein lies the problem. Under the new proposal, schools and districts would not be held accountable for the performance of each subgroup individually. Instead, all those subgroups will be lumped into a bucket that could most charitably be characterized as “those kids.”

One of the driving arguments behind the shift is that it would allow students to be counted for accountability purposes in smaller or more homogenous districts where subgroup sizes are too small to meet state privacy requirements (16 students or more). That’s not an unfair point, though I’d argue that it doesn’t make much sense to adopt a statewide shift in our accountability system—a system designed to make sure education is working for nearly 900,000 public school students, most of whom are in larger urban or suburban districts—to deal with a relatively small number of edge cases.

Some districts and “stakeholders” involved in accountability discussions with CDE—primarily the usual trifecta of CASE, CASB, and CEA—have also argued that this shift makes the accountability system fairer. Why? Because when points are awarded on a per-subgroup basis, students can be double counted. For instance, it’s not at all inconceivable that you could have a student who is at-risk, a member of a minority, and an English-language learner. Thus, if that student performs poorly, he or she might be counted against the school or district three times.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves out something important: Those same kids are also counted more than once if they do well. Raising that point, however, usually earns you little more than a blank stare and a shrug. The unspoken assumption is that “those kids” will never do better, that they will always underperform no matter how hard they work, and that schools and districts cannot reasonably be expected to help them improve in the face of their challenges. Sometimes, that assumption is given voice in more disturbingly explicit ways.

I’m too young to use the word I’d like to assign to that line of thinking. I have said again and again that the poverty excuse should be eradicated from education policy discussions, and the same is true for apologist arguments applied to other subgroups. I’m not alone in that line of thinking. This nation is founded on the notion that anyone willing to work hard and play by the rules can achieve success, and I stubbornly refuse to let go of that idea. Call me crazy, but I actually believe every student can succeed if given the right support and opportunity.

Are there hurdles that come along with educating challenging populations of kids? You bet. Are these groups of kids statistically more likely to have trouble in school? Absolutely. But education is stuffed with examples of schools—privatecharter, and traditional—beating the odds and doing amazing work with these populations of students. That kind of progress isn’t incentivized or produced by simply shoveling “those kids” into a bucket implicitly labeled “other.” I worry deeply about the message such a setup sends to our school and district leaders, not to mention our students.

Critically, the entire notion of “combined subgroups” is also severely out of alignment with the way we currently fund our public education system.

Though proponents are loathe to admit it, students falling into more than one subgroup are often already “double counted” when it comes to the money schools and districts receive. Districts take in huge amounts of additional money—between 12 and 30 percent of their total per-pupil funding—under the School Finance Act for each low-income, or “at-risk,” student. They also receive large sums of money specifically for English-language learners (about $45 million statewide in 2015-16) and special education students ($165 million). And all of this is before we factor in the millions of federal dollars allocated for these populations of students each year.

Now, I’m not here to argue that our current school finance system is the best way to fund our schools. I’d love to see us move toward a more student-centered model (backpack funding, anyone?). But for now, this is the system we have. And the system tends to attach funding to programs and services for these populations of students, not to the students themselves. The fact that an individual student happens to be involved in a program for at-risk students and an ELL program does not change the fact that the district receives funding for both programs. More importantly, such an arrangement does not alleviate the burden of providing taxpayers with direct accountability for the results those separately funded programs produce.

The Independence Institute has long been a champion for taxpayer accountability in all areas of government spending. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Institute would hold the same position when it comes to K-12 education, which is the largest government endeavor in the state. And given the Independence Institute Education Policy Center’s deep belief that every single Colorado student, regardless of background or personal challenges, deserves the chance to work hard, persevere, and enjoy the dignity of earned success, it shouldn’t be shocking that attempts to shovel some groups of kids aside would cause consternation. So stop furrowing your eyebrows at me. Yes, you.

The plot surrounding the subgroups issue thickened after the release of non-binding guidance on the Every Student Succeeds Act indicating that combined subgroups likely won’t be allowable under the new federal law. But what the feds say is neither here nor there in my mind. As we learned during the 2016 legislative session, Colorado can do the right thing all by itself.

Here’s hoping the State Board continues that trend when it convenes to discuss this issue on Wednesday.