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Colorado education fares OK, rates well next to other states

According to a conservative organization’s annual report, Colorado education policies and low-income student performance continue to rate well when graded on the curve. Yet the latest edition of ALEC’s Report Card on American Education identifies opportunities for the state to improve and excel.

The October release marked the 19th edition of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s analysis. The latest report, co-authored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dave Myslinski, grades states according to whether they have adopted a series of K-12 reform policies and also ranks states on absolute terms based on test scores for students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program.

“International results show that the United States is world-class in spending per pupil, not so much in learning per pupil, and that our results for Black and Hispanic students are closer to those of Mexico than of South Korea, despite the fact that Mexico has a far larger poverty problem and spends a small fraction of American spending,” Ladner wrote on Jay Greene’s blog after the release of the report.

Achievement Relatively Good

If the national picture appears bleak, the state’s status is relatively better. Colorado showed statistically significant improvement on three of the four landmark national tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the past decade, a time period that allows for broad and consistent comparisons. NAEP tests are administered every two years to representative samples of students in every state.

In the short term, fourth-graders gained ground in both math and reading from 2011 to 2013. On the other hand, eighth-graders recorded no visible progress in either subject over the same two-year period. Indiana, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia registered the largest overall improvement in NAEP achievement.

Yet in ALEC’s overall performance rankings, Colorado education topped D.C. (22nd) and Tennessee (24th), and finished only one spot behind fourth-rated Indiana. A trio of northeastern states — Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont — took the top three places. The report’s authors strictly compared the combined performance of low-income students on the four 2013 NAEP tests, to avoid unfairly punishing states for the academic challenges associated with higher student poverty rates.

Even with the measured progress of recent years, significant shares of Colorado’s fourth-grade students are not reaching even baseline levels of performance. On the 2013 NAEP, 42 percent failed to demonstrate basic levels of reading achievement, with 24 percent similarly falling short in math.

Toward Better Policies

Colorado earned a C-plus education policy grade from ALEC. Yet only 8 states surpassed that mark, all with B grades. Indiana topped out the rankings with the only B-plus, followed by Florida’s B, while Colorado’s neighbor Utah was one of six to merit a B-minus.

The leader of the highly-rated Hoosier State penned the foreword for the ALEC report, noting significant progress that still needed to be made. “Indiana and other states have made great progress in our efforts to give our children the best educational options available to them,” Gov. Mike Pence wrote. “Much remains to be done.”

In many ways, Colorado leaders would be justified in issuing a similar statement. Even following years of significant new reform laws, major education policy discussions are likely to return to the state legislature in 2015.

Ladner and Myslinski rated states on six policy categories, pulling together analyses from six different organizations to issue the overall letter grade. Colorado was rated highest for the level of freedom and accountability incorporated into its public charter school law, and for the rigor of its state academic standards.

Less impressive grades were doled out for the Centennial State’s policies to provide quality public school classroom teachers, to limit the regulatory burden on families that choose home schooling, and to encourage student access to effective digital learning technologies.

Colorado could overcome its biggest identified shortcoming by providing students statewide with greater private school choice. ALEC gave the state an F in this area, not factoring Douglas County’s locally enacted Choice Scholarship Program, currently enjoined and awaiting hearing before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is co-editor of Watchdog Wire - Colorado. Contact him at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Boulder State. Follow him on Twitter: @bendegrow

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