Making the Grade

Students raised their CSAP scores, and all their teachers got was a lousy banner.

Two years ago, public schools rated "unsatisfactory" on the state's accountability reports were promised recognition and cash incentives if they showed significant improvement on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests -- the sole measure for each school's rating. So teachers across the state worked extra hard to make sure their kids knew the reading, writing and math material needed to raise their scores. And last year, 100 schools did.

They were supposed to receive the Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award -- a nice pat on the back that came with a $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 grant, depending on a school's size. But it felt more like a slap in the face when teachers learned they wouldn't be getting the money after all. "If you expect people to perform and promise them something, then to take it back is pretty cheap," says Jan Houston, media specialist at Aurora's West Middle School.

CSAP scores from the previous spring's testing were tabulated in the fall, and schools learned how they rated -- and whether they qualified for the improvement award -- when accountability reports, or "report cards," were issued in mid-December. Because of its 1,000-student population, West was slated to receive $15,000. Instead, it and the other award-winning schools were sent a congratulatory banner in the mail last month.

"It's kind of a joke. The banner doesn't even say 'West Middle School' on it," says seventh-grade social studies teacher Ayal Korczak. "It would have been better to get nothing than to get this."

Unlike other state projects currently on the chopping block, the awards program was not part of the state's 10 percent budget cuts, says Karen Stroup, chief of staff for the Colorado Department of Education. Rather, the decision was inspired by the Joint Budget Committee's recommendation that state departments prioritize their spending in light of predictions of a continuing economic downturn. "We cut 10 percent from the administrative budget. The governor was trying to hold school districts harmless," Stroup says. "But the JBC thought that no one could be held harmless, so in December, we had to go in and see where school funding could be cut in as harmless a way as possible. Given our choices, the state board of education decided to look first at programs that didn't impact direct services to students, and this didn't."

But since schools had already been notified that they'd earned the honor, Governor Bill Owens couldn't just ignore them. He asked the Fund for Colorado's Future, an educational nonprofit that he established in 2000, to make banners for the schools. "It is disappointing, because they worked so hard, and we wanted to let them know that we recognized that," says Rachel Nance, Owens's senior policy advisor.

No one knows when -- or if -- the recognition program will be reinstated. "We're hearing that state revenue is expected to be down for next year," Stroup says. "I don't think it will come back in the near future."

Improved schools aren't the only ones feeling cheated. Those rated "excellent" have been honored ever since the accountability reports were first issued two years ago. In December, 143 schools earned the John Irwin Schools of Excellence Awards, named after the late state representative with a passion for education. When that award was established, $1.5 million of general-fund money was allocated for those schools, distributed in $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 grants. The pot was supposed to double last year when the governor's award was added, with two-thirds of it going to the most-improved schools and the rest going to the highest-rated schools. But the legislature didn't approve the increase, and all 243 schools were left to split the Irwin Awards money. Now no one gets anything, because the $1.5 million line item has been eliminated entirely.

That actually comes as a relief to Flatirons Elementary in Boulder's affluent Chautauqua neighborhood. Faculty members at the two-time award-winning school grappled with accepting the $10,000 gift last year. "I appreciated it, but we have a strong parent group and are doing well financially, and I can think of a lot of other schools that needed the money more," says Flatirons principal Mark Sparn, whose school also received a banner this year. "We had talked about reallocating the money to other schools, but that didn't happen because of the possible legal issues that could have arisen around that."

West Middle School's Korczak was counting on buying new books at various reading levels, since some of his seventh-graders read at a fifth-grade level and some at a first. "We were also going to purchase used computers so kids could write papers. Most of them don't have computers at home," he says. "That money would have made a huge difference."

"We all live on budgets, and it's nice to have a little extra," says media specialist Houston, whose classroom is the school library. "I would have put the money into books that boys would read, because there's a gap in reading scores between the boys and the girls.

"We're spending millions of dollars on testing kids and sending out the [accountability] report cards to parents," she continues. "If they put all the money they spend on CSAP into improving classrooms, we'd get a lot further down the road."

The state did, however, give underachieving schools a helping hand -- without which many of them might not have improved so dramatically. In the first two years of the accountability reports, the state gave money to "unsatisfactory" elementary schools ($75,000), middle schools ($100,000) and high schools ($125,000) to help them boost their scores. West Middle School used the $200,000 it amassed over two years of unsatisfactory scoring to provide more teacher training. "Most teachers spent an extra eight to ten hours a week out of school time; they went to extraordinary lengths to boost these kids' scores, and the pressure was intense," Korczak says.

And the results were promising. West's rating went up a notch last year, to "low." Although the school is grateful for the extra money it got up front, Korczak says the withdrawal of the reward money was "a blow to the teachers."

That's not the only money that's disappeared. In 2001, the state legislature created a program to provide incentives for teachers working in unsatisfactory- and low-scoring schools. The program originally had $12.6 million to disburse in the form of $1,000 bonuses. Last year lawmakers reduced the allocation to $4 million and applied it only to teachers in unsatisfactory schools; now it's been cut entirely.

David Hazen, principal of the Center for Discovery Learning, a kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade charter school in Jefferson County, says the whole system is crazy. "Last year we got $75,000, and frankly, we wouldn't have improved the way we did without those resources," he says, explaining that the elementary portion of his school went from unsatisfactory to low and, as a result, earned a Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award in December. Hazen used that money to extend the school day and create an after-hours literacy program.

But now that booster money is gone, too. The state had only planned to give those grants to the lowest-performing schools for two years.

"I can't believe that unsatisfactory schools won't get that money anymore. The governor is going to hang his hat on schools like mine that have improved, but we got resources. I don't know what's going to happen to those schools now," Hazen says. "I guess they'll be turned into charter schools someday, but who's going to run those?"

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon