ESSA Improving Colorado Education

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is the bipartisan legislation passed in 2015 that finally replaced the No Child Left Behind nightmare that every state opted out of.  We advocated previously for people to jump on the committees and have the stakeholder voices heard!

What’s the scoop on Colorado’s ESSA plan? A new resource is available for all of us along with a review comparing to other states.

Here’s the overview:


  • Colorado has clearly sought out and respected the feedback from many stakeholder groups, and its “hub and spoke” model for conducting outreach is a thoughtful and extensive approach.
  • The state makes a laudable effort at including more students in its accountability system by lowering the threshold at which it includes subgroups for accountability and reporting purposes – including additional ways to capture schools with low-performing subgroups – and creating a methodology for including subgroups when they separately do not meet the minimum number of students required.
  • It also provides a strong rationale regarding its content standards and the process used to validate alignment with higher education. This process should be replicated in other states.
  • Colorado’s plan for supporting schools recognizes that schools will be at varying levels of readiness to engage with the state and establishes a range of interventions in response. The plan should be commended for its focus on leadership as a target of school turnaround efforts.


  • Colorado is proposing to shift to an entirely normative approach, where all indicators and the accountability system itself are based on relative performance, not a predefined standard. That approach may not be sufficiently clear to parents, educators, or other stakeholders, and it means the accountability system has no incentives aligned to the state’s professed goal of college and career readiness for all students.
  • The state also lacks coherent goals for its schools, and the ones provided are disconnected from the state’s long-term vision. As a result, the system does not provide schools clear signals about how they need to improve, and it’s particularly problematic for those students who have been historically sidelined as a result of their race, class, and/or life circumstances.
  • Colorado’s method of excluding students whose parents opted them out of state tests may undermine the state’s proposed school-rating methodology.
  • Colorado has also not finalized a number of decisions in its accountability system, leading to uncertainty about how exactly it will be implemented in practice.


Colorado’s long-term goals are disconnected from the state’s vision.

The vision lays out the priorities of all students demonstrating readiness for school, third-grade reading proficiency, meeting or exceeding standards throughout their schooling years, and graduating high school ready for college and careers.

However, the state’s plan does not set long-term goals for students’ early preparation, includes average scale scores rather than a proficiency measure, and does not include any goals for college and career readiness.

The enumerated long-term vision is also disconnected from the state’s system for classifying school performance.

Colorado has not set clear long-term goals or interim targets to reach its vision.

The state has proposed a confusing percentile-based system that intends to raise the statewide performance from the 50th to the 53rd percentile. This is:

  • Difficult for parents, educators, and the public to understand
  • Does not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve
  • May not be ambitious improvement because the plan does not provide any information about the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards at that performance level.

Colorado’s proficiency and graduation rate goals are similarly unclear.

As written, Colorado expects children with disabilities, who currently score at the 1stpercentile statewide, to score at the 53rd percentile in six years. That would be an impressive gain, but Colorado also expects Asian students, who currently score at the 82nd percentile statewide, to regress backward to the same 53rd percentile within six years.

In contrast, Colorado has set graduation rate goals using objective data on past performance. The state set a goal of increasing its graduation rate to 90.3 percent within a six-year time frame, based on its analysis of what the state has achieved in recent years. But unlike the percentile approach, which is normative, graduation rate gains are based on actual, observed changes over time against a predefined threshold. The state should apply a similar approach to its achievement goals.

Lastly, Colorado’s plan lacks information and specificity about historical English-language proficiency performance, goals, and interim targets.

Standards and Assessments

Colorado has a high-quality assessment in grades 3-9.

Colorado has a high-quality assessment system, the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, in grades three through nine, which includes state-developed science and social studies assessments and PARCC English language arts and math assessments. Colorado also deserves credit for including its assessment in science into its accountability system. This decision may help ameliorate concerns about curriculum narrowing and expand the scope of what schools focus on beyond reading and math.

Using PSAT and SAT at the high-school level has pros and cons.

At the high school level, Colorado is using the PSAT and SAT as its accountability assessment. Absent an independent review, we don’t yet know if the PSAT/SAT is fully aligned with Colorado’s state academic standards. While offering the SAT as the state’s official test offers many benefits, some of those key benefits may not extend fully to all students who require accommodations and may not receive college-reportable scores.

Colorado has made efforts to accommodate all students.

Colorado has provided a detailed description of its accommodations for English language-learners, particularly Spanish-speaking students. However, Colorado could strengthen its plan by ensuring that it has a process in place to meet the 1 percent cap on alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.



Colorado has not determined how each indicator will be weighted.

While Colorado’s plan describes how each of the measures that might be used in the accountability system are valid, reliable, comparable across schools, and supported by research, it has not yet determined how each indicator will be weighted in its accountability system.

Colorado’s plan is lacking indicators that would better match its long-term priorities.

The plan could be improved through the inclusion of early childhood as well as postsecondary and workforce readiness indicators.

The state could also develop a menu of college- and career-ready predictors (e.g., Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or industry credentials) to help ensure schools are equipping students for success after high school.

Colorado should have a stronger plan in place to ensure that parental opt-outs do not undermine the school-rating system.

As the state transitions to the SAT, it may be useful to include the percentage of students meeting the college-readiness benchmark.

Similarly, some of Colorado’s indicators could be altered or strengthened to better align with its goals.

Colorado has proposed an alternative measure for including proficiency on statewide annual assessments in its accountability system called mean scale scores. This measure merely reflects schoolwide averages and does not track the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards.

While Colorado’s plan includes four-, five-, six-, and seven-year graduation rates in its accountability system, it could strengthen its plan by placing greater weight on its four-year graduation rate.

The state’s use of a dropout rate as its indicator of school quality and student success for high schools is also questionable. The dropout rate is a measure of retention, not attainment, and it may send an inaccurate view to parents and the public of the effectiveness of the education system.

Academic Progress

Colorado has yet to determine what emphasis to put on student progress.

Colorado has been considered a national leader when it comes to assessing academic progress. Its growth model, based on student growth percentiles, has been adopted by a number of other states. The state has also applied its growth model to its English-language proficiency assessment (WiDA ACCESS for English language learners). However, Colorado has not yet determined how much of an emphasis to place on student progress in its accountability system.

Colorado’s growth model lacks the proper benchmarks.

The state’s growth model presents challenges when combined with the state’s proposed achievement measure.

The state’s growth model compares low-performing students with other low-performing students, rather than setting a benchmark that all students should aspire to.

Combined with an achievement measure that also ignores the proficiency benchmark, this system may not create a sufficient incentive for Colorado schools to pay attention to raising the performance of low-performing students. Colorado could strengthen its plan by incorporating its “adequate growth percentile” calculation, which does look at a student’s progress toward state benchmarks.

 All students

Colorado is taking the right steps to ensure that all students are being counted.

 The state will not be incorporating subgroup scores directly into its school-rating system, but it does have a plan to identify 5 percent of schools for each of the lowest performing  subgroups as schools in need of targeted support. If any particular subgroup continues to flounder for four consecutive years, Colorado will shift those schools into more rigorous, comprehensive support status.

Colorado proposes creating a “super-subgroup” only when the individual racial/ethnic subgroups do not meet the state’s minimum threshold on their own. The plan provides compelling data behind the state’s rationale for using this measure, and limits its use only when necessary.

It is also lowering its n-size, the minimum group size used to determine if schools should be held accountable for the performance of subgroups, from 30 to 16 for achievement and graduation indicators and to 20 for growth indicators – which will ensure more schools are paying attention to more subgroups of students.

Colorado also has a strong plan in place for proposing accountability metrics for its Alternative Education Campuses and for inclusion of extended-year graduation rates to ensure that all students are served, and it could be further improved if the state determined an accountability approach for K-2 schools.

The state has clear plans to help students with disabilities, but could benefit from early screening.

Colorado has done a good job aligning its plan to the IDEA State Systemic Improvement Plan and its IDEA State Personnel Development grant. The state also plans to incorporate Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports in all schools. Finally, it describes integration of the Early Childhood workforce, but could benefit from specifically screening students for learning disabilities early to ensure educators incorporate interventions beginning in pre-k.

Identifying Schools

Colorado’s plan is missing weights for indicators.

Without proposed weights for indicators, it is difficult to determine whether Colorado’s schools will be identified in an advisable manner.

Whenever those weights are finalized, Colorado plans to rank all schools based on the total percentage of points earned.

Colorado’s definition of “consistently underperforming” subgroups is concerning.

 Colorado uses the same methodology to account for subgroups of students as it does to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools. A school with a subgroup in the lowest 5 percent for that subgroup will be identified for additional targeted support.

 The state’s definition of a “consistently underperforming” subgroup as one that earns the “lowest rating” on at least three indicators is concerning for several reasons:

  • First, no information is provided regarding what level of performance will constitute the “lowest rating.”
  • Second, if a school has a subgroup underperforming in math and English achievement, it would still need to also earn the lowest rating on a third indicator to be labeled for targeted support.
  • Further, it is not clear in the plan the difference in definitions between “consistently underperforming” and “chronically low performing” subgroups.

More information is needed when it comes to establishing performance expectations.

Colorado’s performance expectations are normative, which means schools are compared to each other, not against set expectations. It is unclear if the performance bands they set stay static or change over time, and over what time period. If they change annually, that artificially “forces” schools to the bottom and the top of the spectrum, which could send inappropriate signals to stakeholders.

The plan’s proposal to exclude students whose parents opted them out of state assessments in accountability determinations could also undermine the state’s school-rating system. The state could strengthen its plan by identifying schools in need of comprehensive support and improvement using the four-year graduation rate, not the extended rate, as the state proposes.

Supporting Schools

Colorado’s support mechanisms for low-performing schools are relatively vague.

The state’s plan cites a host of possibilities (e.g., performance management tools, professional learning) and describes a resource list, but lacks details.

The one area the plan should be commended for is its focus on leadership as a target of school turnaround.

Additionally, Colorado does have an “Accountability Clock,” embedded in state law, but the plan does not make clear connections between possible interventions and what’s statutorily required.

Colorado’s plan does provide a description of the tiered system of performance management and technical assistance.

The plan lays out an ongoing process for matching 7 percent of its Title I funds dedicated for school-improvement activities using what is called a “needs-based approach.”

However, the goals outlined by the state appear to be in tension, specifically the intent of “incentivizing innovation” while “providing predictability” to school districts.

Given the importance of the former, a competitive allocation process aligned to the state’s long-term priorities would likely better serve the state’s aspirations.

The state’s plan could be improved if the state took advantage of the Direct Student Services opportunity and articulated how it intends to use those resources to provide greater access to advanced coursework for traditionally underperforming subgroups of students.

Exiting Improvement Status

Colorado’s plan for exiting low-performing schools is weakened by its poor system of identification and lacks detail.

Based on the state’s description, schools could exit improvement status by jumping in the state’s relative rankings without making any actual improvements (other schools could simply fall behind them).

While the state specifies that schools must remain in the Comprehensive Support classification for three years, it provides no information about ongoing performance expectations necessary to exit this list. It is unclear whether/how averaging school performance over three years may make exiting improvement status more or less challenging for these schools.

Further, Colorado provides no clear timeline for supporting targeted support and improvement schools.

Continuous Improvement

Colorado engaged stakeholders, but needs to detail future engagement plans, especially outside of the immediate education system.

Colorado’s plan was developed through significant consultation with stakeholders in and out of the education system. But the plan could be further strengthened by outlining the steps the state will take to continue to engage with noneducation actors, especially the disability community.

The state also intends to establish annual cycles for evaluating the efficacy of its implementation efforts. However, most of the state’s efforts are focused on school- and district-level support, when there’s an opportunity in ESSA to directly address student needs.