Aspen school board candidates put to the test
Recently released data showing 41% of third-graders in Aspen Elementary School met or exceeded state reading standards have education board candidates expressing varying degrees of concern about the issue.
Unveiled at a Sept. 7 school board meeting and a topic of discussion at a candidate forum Thursday, the data are based on results from the state’s CMAS standardized tests and the STAR Reading Assessment from 2019.
Candidates Katy Frisch, John Galambos, Patsy Kurkulis, Jonathan Nickell, Jim Pomeroy and Bettina Slusar are running for the two open seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education. Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills, both nearing the end of their second four-year terms, are stepping down because of term limits. Ballots were mailed out this week; the election is Nov. 5.
Thursday’s forum, broadcast by GrassRoots TV and moderated by David Krause and Curtis Wackerle, the respective editors of The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News, capped a whirlwind week for the candidates, who also participated in the district-sponsored forum Tuesday and the Aspen Education Foundation’s debate Wednesday.
The candidates have tackled such issues as hiring a new superintendent, mental health at the schools, climate and culture at the district, teacher compensation and housing.
And how the district’s younger students are faring academically provoked a range of responses Thursday from the candidates.
“In my opinion, given that statistic, we need to do some SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) in the classroom right now, because those kids are in the classroom right now, and not have this be a long process and discussion but just get on the ground and figure it out,” Slusar said.
Yet Galambos, the father of three children who graduated from Aspen schools and now attend college, offered that standardized tests results tell an incomplete story.
“I do take a 12-year look at achievement,” he said. “My son had one bad year. He turned out to be a great kid and do really well overall, so we need to not say one bad test is terrible, or two bad tests. We do need to dive into why.”
One reason why, Nickell said, is the State Board of Education’s adoption of the common core state standards in 2010, which took effect in 2014, “has been especially acute at the elementary school” because curriculum has not been aligned with the tests.
“My personal opinion on what the problem is has a lot to do with curriculum alignment in terms of making sure that what we’re teaching is aligned with what the common core standards are,” he said, “because that’s what the test is testing on, and I think we’ve been hearing a lot about how that’s been a priority for the board for a long time, but we’re still not there yet.”
Slusar, however, countered other Colorado schools were dealt the same hand.
“That same situation applies to everybody,” Slusar said. “The standards were changed across the board, so something’s not happening, and now that we have that information, I think we need to figure out what that is.”
Like the other candidates, Frisch said there are varying reasons for the low performance.
“I suspect there are curriculum alignment issues,” she said. “It’s no one teacher. It’s no one kid. It’s no one bad day. Almost 60% of the kids can’t read at the right level. It’s just completely unacceptable.”
Standardized tests, Kurkulis said, aren’t necessarily a barometer for overall student achievement.
“I think one of the questions we’re not asking is: ‘What are our children learning?’ And I’m not sure that standardized testing always shows that.”
Kurkulis, however, added that previous school boards haven’t given the test results the scrutiny they demand, while Pomeroy said the board needs to deliver precise academic expectations.
“What we need to do is lay out clear goals, and this would be an obvious goal — to raise those test scores,” he said. “But then once it’s been given to the superintendent and staff, what has happened in the past is that they have simply said, ‘We did this.’ They haven’t shown statistics. They haven’t shown numbers.”
He added, “I want someone to show me a graph that says this is how we’ve done it and here’s the evidence that it’s happened. That hasn’t happened in the past, and that’s the board’s job. Set the goal, and then staff says how they have met that goal.”
Frisch and Slusar said the issue can’t fester.
“My reaction is this is a state-of-emergency-type thing,” Frisch said, adding that Aspen Elementary “is not an inner-city school. We do not have a tremendously large ESL population. This is horrific. This is something we need to fix right now.”
The community can use such academic resources as Room to Read to help address the deficiency, Galambos said.
“We can solve this problem,” he said. “We can tap some of the resources in the community. … It’s not just on the teachers. Let’s get the community in here to help the kids read a little better.”
Nickell said, “It’s not something that our kids all of the sudden got less smart. They’re the same kids. A lot of times it was just the same curriculum that’s being taught and it’s not matched to the standards that are there.”
The differences between Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and Michael Buglione — whether professional, political or personal — were on full display at Thursday’s candidate debate held in Aspen.