A struggling school district’s quest to become the first to successfully appeal its low state accountability rating ended today when the State Board of Education voted 6-1 to deny their request.
Despite evidence of a continued effort to improve academic performance of its students, members of the board said the statewide consequences would be too great if they agreed to lift Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating.
Sheridan officials argued a bump in accreditation would more accurately capture the fruits of the intense turnaround efforts schools have undergone including lowering its dropout rate from 5 percent to 0.9 percent.
Officials from the Colorado Department of Education countered: If the board approved Sheridan’s appeal it would put the state’s accountability framework and processes of collecting and analyzing data into question.
The board agreed with the department.
“It’s clear you’re on the right track … In concept, I’m in support of you,” the board’s chairman, Paul Lundeen, told Sheridan officials. “But, in practicality, I can’t.”
State officials argued in order to bump Sheridan’s rating, the department would have had to allow the district to resubmit graduation rates after a statewide deadline for all schools. Allowing Sheridan to amend its data as it’s convenient to the district would create a precedent that would throw off careful timelines and procedures.
More importantly, state officials argued it would allow districts to retroactively manipulate their data if they weren’t happy with their school accountability rating.
“Sheridan is asking for CDE to create a unique framework that fits their needs,” said Keith Owen, the department’s deputy commissioner. “The state board has responsibility to safeguard the accountability measure.”
Debora Scheffel was the lone dissenting board member. She said she believes the district is supporting its students to the best of its ability.
“I feel [Sheridan] is doing a great job serving a very needy population,” Scheffel said. “The fact they could remove a service and increase their accreditation means they’re trying to serve their students.”
The crux of Sheridan’s argument was that it has more than a dozen students enrolled for a fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school who are concurrently enrolled at both its high school and Arapahoe Community College. Those students have met the qualifications for a standard diploma, but they are seeking an advanced “21st Century Diploma” that requires college courses.
Sheridan officials believes the state should not only track graduation rates, but should acknowledge the “success rate” of Sheridan students who are now taking college courses in pursuit of an advanced degree.
Districts, not the state, set the parameters for graduation requirements. It is also the local board of education and superintendent who certify those numbers to the state. Those numbers are then factored into the school’s annual rating. It is Sheridan’s policies, not the state’s, that have determined the district’s rating, department officials said.
The state board, at times, had trouble following the numbers and logic from both Sheridan and department officials. Questions during the two hour hearing ranged from exactly how many students Sheridan has concurrently enrolled — those numbers ranged from 19 to 24 — to the intricacies of school finance law.
“This is a case of ‘is or is-you-aint,'” said board member Angelika Schroeder. “And I think you’re saying they’re both.”
Sheridan Schools serves about 1,500 students, most of whom qualify for free- or reduced-lunch. The district earned a “priority improvement” ranking from the state’s department of education. The district believes it should be rated as an “improvement” district.
Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.
No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. But Sheridan Schools is one of 11 districts entering either year four or five of the accountability timeline. Sheridan will enter year four of the clock in July when state accreditation ratings take effect.
Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough said while he’s disappointed, he understands the board’s decision.
“I guess that’s what happens when you have 178 districts — and not just one — to worry about,” Clough said after the hearing.
Sheridan’s failed appeal was the second of its kind. Mapleton Public Schools unsuccessfully pleaded with the state board to raise its accreditation rating last year.