Testing Testing

Ready or not, new standards hit Colorado schools

Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

DURANGO, Colo. — On a sunny morning in early June, 30 educators crowded around tables in a room at Fort Lewis College for the first session in a three-day training on Colorado’s new academic standards. Though the school year had just ended, nearly 600 teachers converged on the small college in anticipation of the changes they would face when the new standards rolled out this fall.

In the back of the room, six math teachers discussed the day’s first task: to brainstorm what they knew about Common Core State Standards, nationwide grade-level expectations in math and English that Colorado adopted in 2010.

“Our district hasn’t touched it at all,” admitted one teacher from western Colorado. Her colleague nodded in agreement.

But the two were an anomaly at the table, which mostly included teachers from districts that piloted the standards two years ago. Twenty minutes later, each group taped a large poster to the room’s bank of windows. As the two facilitators read each poster out loud, it was clear that at every table, the teachers’ knowledge of the Common Core varied greatly.

While some groups had drawn diagrams and written several sentences, others had written just a few words.

“What does this mean?” asked one of the facilitators, pointing to the words “curriculum” and “purchases.”

“We were just coming up with buzzwords,” a teacher called out.

This year, educators across Colorado are bracing themselves for a rocky road as districts introduce a host of school reforms, including new standards for 10 content areas, new tests, and new teacher evaluation systems. The Common Core standards have sparked debate across the country over their quality and focus, and about the federal government’s role in classrooms. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which for most states has meant the Common Core.)

In Colorado, the transition has been relatively smooth, if slow, up until this year. Thirteen districts rolled out the new standards early, while at least one district rejected them and created its own comparable ones. The rest of the state’s 180 districts have transitioned more gradually to new standards or continued teaching previous versions of the state’s standards until this year, the deadline for all districts to switch.

“There’s heavily resourced districts that have been thinking about this for a while, and in some, other initiatives took some precedence,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instructional support for the Colorado Department of Education. “Now, it’s really starting to hit home.”

Even in the districts that have experimented with the new standards since 2011 and received extensive support from nonprofits like the Colorado Legacy Foundation, progress has varied. In Eagle County, outside of Vail, former superintendent Sandra Smyser said in a May interview that the district’s teachers have embraced the reforms. “It’s difficult for us to find advice on how to proceed because we’re so far ahead,” she said.

But in Durango, another pilot district in southwestern Colorado, the transition has been more gradual. District superintendent Dan Snowberger says teachers “dabbled” in the new standards for two years, but as recently as last year the district had “not shifted our thinking to the new standards to any complete degree.”

Despite the delays, the changes have been a long time coming. In 2009, the year before the nationwide Common Core standards were introduced, Colorado released its own new standards for math and English, as well as for less commonly taught subjects like dance and visual arts. An independent review of Colorado’s math and English standards found them to be significantly aligned with the later-released Common Core. But in 2010, the state revised its standards yet again to further integrate the Common Core, while retaining Colorado-specific topics like state history, and standards on financial literacy.

The view from the classroom

As the reforms roll out across Colorado, the biggest impact will be felt inside classrooms, where under Common Core students will learn fewer topics and spend more time on key concepts. Younger students will learn the basics, such as counting to 100 and writing sentences, in earlier grades. Math teachers will move more slowly through mathematical operations to build a better background for higher math, like algebra. Lessons will be steeped in context and modeling real-world scenarios.

In one of the more controversial changes, the new English standards promote nonfiction as a way to prepare students for the types of reading they’ll encounter most in college and at work. In elementary school, students are supposed to read a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, such as speeches and news articles, which will shift to 30 percent literature and 70 percent informational by high school. Not all of the informational reading will happen in English classrooms, but the shift has sparked outcry from some educators concerned that traditional literature like The Great Gatsby will be replaced by nonfiction texts like the Gettysburg Address.

Kimba Rael, a high school English teacher in the pilot district of Centennial, believes there’s room for President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 speech in English class. “It still 100 percent falls into our realm,” she said. “Can’t we teach it as a rhetorical argument?”

The new standards encourage interdisciplinary teaching. For example, the sample curriculum for seventh grade English language arts suggests that students research and write about different perspectives on climate change, a topic typically covered in science classrooms.

Common Core also stresses that students use evidence from texts to support their ideas, and that teachers spend less time on “pre-reading” activities such as asking students to make predictions before they read. Teachers are instead encouraged to devote more days to individual texts—one of the architects of Common Core, David Coleman, suggests that teachers spend three days on the 10-sentence Gettysburg speech, for instance—and ask more specific questions about them.

“I’m finding I’m gearing almost everything toward justification—the importance of particular lines and passages,” said Rael. Student “conversations have totally changed.”

But Rael also says it was hard at first to internalize some of the major changes, like reducing pre-reading activities and handing the discussion over to students. She says it took her about a year before she started to alter her lessons and classroom activities dramatically.

Now, her students participate in frequent seminars about their reading, during which they moderate their own discussions. They no longer take daily quizzes on various facts from the previous night’s homework. “It really became more of an ‘I gotcha,’ ” Rael admitted. Her new weekly quizzes feature two or three important lines or passages from texts that students must analyze. “There’s a lot of ‘Why? Show me.’ Or, ‘Can you prove that?’ ” she said.

At North High School in Denver, which has piloted the new standards since 2011, math teacher Zachary Rowe says the standards have resulted in a “huge shift” in how teachers at his school plan, teach and assess. Instead of listening to lectures and completing practice problems, students participate in group work, projects and debates about math concepts.

“We’ve moved away from naked problems—solving for X for the sake of solving for X—and getting into, ‘Why am I learning this?’ ” Rowe explained.

Last school year, Rowe began infusing his lessons with real-life scenarios—a change from just helping students memorize formulas and how to solve equations. He now teaches a lesson on how to graph the intersection of two lines with a word problem about population growth and food supply. “I was explaining in real-world terms what ‘intersection’ means,” Rowe said. “This is the point where this country reaches carrying capacity and everyone will die.”

As a result, Rowe says his students are more interested in his lessons and eager to talk about, and even debate, mathematical ideas with their peers. Math scores at North High School have risen slightly as well. In the 2011-12 school year, only 10 percent of the school’s ninth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the state math exam. In 2012-13, 14 percent did so.

The incremental growth at schools like North High School suggests that improvements may take longer than some would like. (Statewide, test scores have stagnated in the past two years.)

At the same time, new, more challenging math and English tests based on the new standards will debut in Colorado during the 2014-15 school year, and educators are bracing themselves for lower scores. In Kentucky and New York, where scores plummeted after students took new Common Core-aligned exams, opponents of the new standards have seized the opportunity to suggest that the standards are too rigorous.

Educators around the state are hopeful, however, that in the long term, the changes will ultimately lead to significant improvements in student achievement.

“We’re going to find out a lot about the readiness of schools and districts—and where they thought they were, and where they really are,” said Sevier. “This is going to be a heavy lift over the next few years.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Find out more about the Common Core.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data from the Department of Education in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The state began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out this week, including Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary TNReady scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Making the grade

TNReady scores are about to go out to Tennessee districts, but not all will make student report cards

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

The State Department of Education will start Monday to distribute the test score data that goes into students’ final report cards, but it won’t arrive in time for every district across the state.

That’s because some districts already have ended their school years, some won’t have time to incorporate TNReady grades before dismissing their students, and some missed the state’s first deadline for turning in testing materials.

“Our timelines for sharing TNReady scores are on track,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Friday, noting that the schedule was announced last fall. “We have said publicly that districts will receive raw score data back in late May.”

Shelby County Schools is waiting to see when their scores arrive before making a decision. A spokeswoman said Tennessee’s largest district met all testing deadlines, and needs the scores by Monday to tabulate them into final grades. The district’s last day of school is next Friday.

School leaders in Nashville and Kingsport already have chosen to exclude the data from final grades, while Williamson County Schools is delaying their report cards.

A 2015 state law lets districts opt to exclude the data if scores aren’t received at least five instructional days before the end of the school year.

TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of this year’s final grades. As part of the transition to TNReady, the weight gradually will rise to between 15 and 25 percent (districts have flexibility) as students and teachers become more familiar with the new test.

The first wave of scores are being sent just weeks after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared this year’s testing a “success,” both on paper and online for the 24 districts that opted to test high school students online this year. Last year, Tennessee had a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

Tennessee test scores have been tied to student grades since 2011, but this is the first year that the state used a three-week testing window instead of two. Gast said the added time was to give districts more flexibility to administer their tests. But even with the added week, this year’s timeline was consistent with past years, she said.

Once testing ended on May 5, school districts had five days to meet the first deadline, which was on May 10, to return those materials over to Questar, the state’s new Minneapolis-based testing company.

School officials in Nashville said that wasn’t enough time.

“Due to the volume of test documents and test booklets that we have to account for and process before return for scoring, our materials could not be picked up before May 12,” the district said in a statement on Thursday.

Because districts turned in their testing materials at different times, the release of raw scores, will also be staggered across the next three weeks, Gast said.