Too much of something is bad enough

Dougco parents, board express concern on “testing madness”

Douglas County school officials met with parents on Friday to describe an educational landscape choked by tests and shed some light on why its board of directors has decided to attempt an opt out mechanism for state and federal testing mandates.

Officials also hoped to gather input on how the south suburban school district should proceed, but most parents were ambivalent about the current testing systems and were only beginning to process the board’s decision.

Douglas County schools administer some sort of mandated test nearly every day, leaving little time for instruction, said the district’s assessment chief Syna Morgan, who led the parent forum. Her hope is to create a balance of assessments and instruction, with more discretion from teachers in the classroom and less from the state.

“External testing demands have increased,” she said.

That’s because, as she explained to parents, the state’s educational infrastructure and accountability created by a series of laws — including the School Accountablity Act, the Educator Effectiveness Act and the READ Act — rely on the results of standardized tests.

Since 2010, Colorado schools and districts have been evaluated based on students’ proficiency and academic growth as measured by the state’s standardized tests. Soon, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated by how well their students perform on the same tests.

She called the laws and mandates an interdependent “spiderweb” that, if unwoven, would need to be done so carefully. She said the district was interested in representing all sides of the argument and making sure all parents voices are heard.

But the board’s unanimously passed resolution indicated the historically conservative district is already taking the necessary steps to author and lobby legislation allowing districts to opt out of the mandates.

The board is drafting legislation with an unnamed legislator and reaching out to other lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill, board members said Friday.

State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday that he’s talked with Dougco board members about such the idea but won’t decide whether to introduce a bill until after further discussions among school districts and state education officials. He also said he hasn’t yet talked to other legislators about a testing bill.

Board member Judy Reynolds, who attended the parent forum Friday, said the board’s position boils down to local control of schools, which is guaranteed in the state’s constitution.

“Our community should be in charge of our kids’ education,” she said.

The resolution, which was passed late in the evening Tuesday, has raised eyebrows from education activists and other metro school districts.

That wasn’t the intent, Reynolds said. “We don’t want to go rogue.”

Echoing Reynolds, board president Kevin Larsen said he believes several districts will join the district in supporting the not-yet-public legislation. And he believes the bill will have bipartisan support.

“This should cross ideology,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “But politics is not my concern. The D-and-R count doesn’t matter. What matters is do we have enough legislators that will look at the issues the same way we do.”

The board believes, Larsen said, the district can provide its students and teachers with better and faster feedback. Currently, “the kids are tested in April and don’t get their results until August,” Larsen said.

Student performance on standardized tests should also have less to do with a teacher’s evaluation because, Larsen said, teachers have no control on students take or perform on the test.

“There are better ways to measure teacher effectiveness,” he said.

But one parent, who asked not to be identified because of her association with out-of-state education legislation efforts, said the state’s adoption of Common Core standards and the PARCC consortium tests, will provide parents with better context on their children’s aptitude and post-secondary competitiveness.

“To say we’re above this is crazy,” she said. “We need to know how we’re doing compared to the rest of country. We need comparable standards and tests. I need to know how my student does compared to students in Kentucky and Alabama.”

The district is hosting another set of back-to-back parent forums Jan. 31. The district is also building an advisory committee as it moves forward with its legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, which implements all legislation and oversees standards and testing, said in an email Friday, “There have been no challenges or changes in CDE’s operational systems.”

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”