Colorado Schools Bet on Student Accountability

When Colorado's Jefferson County school district found itself strapped for cash, it made a desperate wager with taxpayers in the form of a four-year proposition called Performance Promise.

The program guaranteed higher test scores in return for millions of extra education dollars. Voters agreed, but it was a gamble no other school system had ever taken on.

"What we committed to the community was increase of achievement over our baseline of 25 per cent," Jeffco Schools Superintendent Jane Hammond said.

It's been a year now, and the district is halfway to its goal. Proficiency has improved from 53 per cent to 60 per cent. In return, the county will receive $10.8 million toward its $20 million goal.

Analysts say Performance Promise is the right move for this wallet-worn community, and that it may be right for other struggling school districts as well. But critics fear that given a monetary incentive, teachers will spend less time teaching subjects and more time reviewing for tests.

Some students complain of performance pressure, and don't think school funding should be dependent on test scores.

"Your school deserves money, but you totally choke and your teacher did everything, taught you everything perfect, and you just can't do it under a test," 7th grader Josh Bowman said.

Other students aren't even aware of the role they play in the scheme.

"I just try to get good grades so I don't get yelled at home," 8th grader Lindsey Westcott said.

Administrators like Hammond maintain that standardized performance tests are still the best way they have of determining whether students are learning.

"We have to have some method that allows us to measure a large number of students," she said.

Education officials across the country are watching Performance Promise closely, looking to see if a similar program could prove beneficial to other communities.

"A lot of eyes are on us," Hammond said.