Testing Madness

Denver releases new opt-out guidance for schools after parent conflict

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Hill Campus in Denver will rock the TCAPs, except those who have been opted-out.

Denver Public Schools officials on Wednesday evening issued new guidelines for how schools should treat families who have opted-out of state assessments after a conflict between a parent and the principal at a Hilltop neighborhood middle school.

The recommendations, which allow students to attend regular classes while skipping early morning tests, comes almost halfway through the time period the state allots for schools to proctor the tests. The district is also issuing the memo amid a growing cacophony of assessment protests: Since the fall, teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing in schools.

But as more parents have asked that their students be exempted from the state exams, schools have sometimes struggled with how to reconcile the demands of parents and of the law, which requires students to be tested.

“It is important for families to understand the value of assessments and the district’s responsibility to follow the law,” wrote Susana Cordova, the district’s chief academic officer, in an email to Denver principals. “Each school is responsible for assessing students in attendance during the testing window.”

However, she continued, “Students refusing to participate in testing should still be allowed access to all other non-assessment activities.”

Parents who want to opt-out their students of the state exams argue that there is legal precedent that allows them to do so, despite a Colorado law that requires students to be tested in third through tenth grades.

So far, the debate over testing in Colorado has seemed to be concentrated in suburbs like Douglas County. But while still relatively small — the total opt-outs from the 2013 round of tests amount to about 1 percent of students — the emergence of spats in Denver may indicate that momentum among parents to opt out is growing.

Meanwhile, parents who wish to have their students abstain from the test are encountering pushback from districts, said Angela Engel, a former Colorado teacher turn author and parent activist. 

Susan Johnson, the Denver parent whose conflict with her child’s school prompted the new guidance from DPS, is one parent who recently joined the opt-out movement.

“I never liked the tests,” she said during an interview Wednesday. But this year is the first she decided to opt her children out of the exams.

Johnson, following the guidance of organizations like United Opt-Out, sent a letter earlier this month explaining her decision to opt-out her children to both her daughter’s middle school and her son’s high school.

She said she didn’t receive any grief from staff at Denver’s South High School.

“They encouraged me to send my opt-out letter to the school board,” Johnson said.

But on Tuesday, she removed her sixth-grade daughter, Sarah, from the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences after her suspicions were aroused that the school was not respecting her request to exempt her daughter from TCAP testing.

Johnson, who is also the school’s PTA treasurer, said she dropped Sarah off at 10:55 a.m. Tuesday, after testing was completed for the day.

In a video shot on a cell phone shortly after Johnson believed her daughter was in class, Johnson found  Sarah, in an office with school staff.

“Excuse me, I explicitly said my daughter was not to be spoken to about this test or coerced in any way,” she told a school employee.

Johnson then asked her daughter if they denied her access to her class. Sarah nodded.

“Get your backpack, let’s go,” Johnson told Sarah.

As Johnson and her daughter left the room, an unidentified DPS employee stood and recited testing protocol.

“Legally, she can’t be in a testing room and interacting with other kids who have already tested same sessions that day,” he said.

Denver school officials declined to discuss the incident at Hill in detail.

But, the school’s principal was following a literal interpretation of guidance provided to him from Colorado Department of Education that said all students who are present during a testing period are required to take test from district and state officials, a district spokeswoman said.

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And the district acknowledged the incident highlighted the need to help school leaders understand what to do if parent demands conflict with state guidance.

“We have apologized to the family for what happened at Hill yesterday,” said Kristy Armstrong, DPS’s spokeswoman. “Our assessment staff has received further clarification on how to accommodate students whose families choose to opt their students out of the portion of the school day devoted to state assessments. Students whose families choose to opt out of state assessments are welcome to participate fully in classroom activities during non-testing time.”

Denver’s new guidance mirrors established policy in neighboring Aurora Public Schools.

“When parents decide they will not allow their students to take TCAP, we ask for them to share their decision in writing, and then we keep the letters for our records,” said Georgia Duran, an APS spokeswoman. “Often parents choose to keep their students home during testing time, but we encourage parents to allow students to attend school. If a student does attend school, we have the student work with another class, and we provide individual work for the child.”

Opting students out of tests is not new. Since 1997, state law has required public school students in specific grades to take the standardized tests in math and English language arts.

However, as states have begun to introduce new exams tied to Common Core State Standards, parents have increasingly begun to organize across the nation to protest.

Engel, the author and activist, likened the opt-out movement to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights and Women’s liberation movements.

“Parents are sick and tired of the commercialization of our child’s education,” Engel said, explaining just one of the many arguments of parents who want to opt-out their students. “They are not for profit. The policies around high-stakes testing is making a lot of money for the test publishers like Pearson. Kids don’t have lobbyists. It falls to the parents to protect their interest. Too many commercial interests including consultants, data managers and curriculum publishers are benefiting.”

The conflict over the role of testing has pitted parents like Johnson against many state and district officials, who point out that testing is necessary to drive schools’ progress and undergird a complex system of school and teacher accountability that the state has built over the past several years.

Colorado schools are rolling out the state’s new standards, which incorporate the national Common Core math and English language standards. Beginning in April, some Colorado students will be tested on science and social studies standards. And a year from now Colorado students will be assessed using the new PARCC tests, which will assess students on the Common Core math and English language standards in nearly a dozen states. 

“Next year will be worse,” Johnson said, referring to the PARCC tests.

In light of the debate, Colorado’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue. And on Tuesday, the State Board of Education Chairman Paul Lundeen, who is also running for a seat in the state House, introduced a resolution that if passed would call on the legislators to abandon the state’s participation in the PARCC tests.

How Colorado could move forward with its accountability reform efforts if the state abandoned the high-stakes testing could prove difficult. But parents like Johnson might be OK if the system was dumped.

Johnson believe the accountability measures are misguided and is obstructing quality learning. That’s just one of many reasons why she doesn’t want her children taking the test.

“Teachers have been forced to change the way they teach,” she said. “Who can blame them? Their livelihood is on the line. They insist they’re not teaching to the test. But you can see they are. If I were a teacher, I would.”

Questions of fairness

Aurora school board raises red flags about bringing DSST charter to district, but signs off on continuing negotiations

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday gave district officials approval to continue negotiations with the DSST charter network, but not before raising concerns about the process and emphasizing that this green light doesn’t guarantee final approval later.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn earlier this year proposed a plan to bring the high-performing DSST network to Aurora, in a new school serving sixth through 12th graders.

Under Munn’s proposal, APS would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money. After passage last month of a $300 million bond measure that included the district’s share of the project cost, Munn on Tuesday asked the board for input on continuing negotiations and on what he should prioritize.

DSST has said it would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that it believes the school district should take the lead.

Board members asked questions around fundraising for the second half of the building’s cost, about whether the school would serve students from across the district or from a specified boundary, and whether the timing is right.

Some board members also raised concerns that the process of inviting DSST for the partnership may not have been fair, and cautioned that they didn’t want to make any guarantees to DSST before the network submits an application for a charter in the district.

“A concern I have with this proposal and not the school — because I would love to have a DSST campus here — is how the community was engaged… and also how our charters were engaged,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “We’re setting up a situation where an outside provider is going to have an opportunity to serve kids, where none of our charters within the district were given that same opportunity.”

Pat Leger, principal of Aurora Academy a charter in its sixth year in the district, said she would have liked the opportunity to have been considered, but mostly felt “offended” because of a recent disagreement with the district about whether her charter could benefit from the district’s bond dollars.

“The part of the process that bothered me the most is he wouldn’t include us in the bond, but he will go out and give money to a charter that he’s never worked with,” Leger said. “That to me feels inappropriate.”

Aurora charter schools are set to get some bond money to improve technology and security, but a district committee found their larger capital requests did not merit inclusion in the bond.

Leger said that she believes Munn’s intentions are good, but that the process hasn’t made it clear why the district believes that need exists at a time when enrollment is down and several other new charter schools were recently approved to open.

“The whole process needs to be looked at,” she said.

Van Schoales, CEO of the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado, while pleased that the district has become more welcoming to charter schools, said his group is also concerned about Aurora’s process.

“You have to have an open, transparent process,” Schoales said. “The fact that the district went back and forth with schools about access to facilities and the bond, it speaks to the fact that there aren’t any clear written rules of engagement.”

Without a process, Schoales said, it could for some people “reinforce the perception that there are backroom deals happening.” Last year, to bring more clarity and transparency to its process, Denver Public Schools adopted a new policy for how it allocates space to district-run and charter schools.

In a letter sent to Munn in July, Bill Kurtz, the charter network’s CEO, expressed a willingness to pursue the plan but outlined a set of criteria the group uses to evaluate potential partnerships. Among the opportunities DSST would be looking for in a deal would be the ability to operate four schools in the district.

Several board members said they would not want to guarantee any future schools without having them go through the district’s application process first. Board member JulieMarie Shepherd wasn’t at the board meeting, but submitted her opinion to the board in writing, expressing the same thought. According to the district’s regular charter school process, applications are accepted each year in March.

The other main concern board members raised was about the timing of opening a new school while enrollment numbers in the district have started dropping. School officials this year were off on their projections by 643 students, requiring the district to adjust the current year’s budget by cutting $3 million.

Two of the five board members at Tuesday’s meeting, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick, suggested the district pause negotiations with DSST while the board works on the budget. Jorgensen requested that district staff look at the financial implications to provide the board more information before a deal reaches a final vote.

Munn told the board that if a deal is reached, a DSST school wouldn’t open for a few years and that by that time, district officials predict enrollment will be increasing again.

Too much too fast?

Key piece of Aurora Central High School’s reform plan not yet in place

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Nearly half a year after district officials laid out a plan for changes at Aurora Central High School, at least one major focus of reform is not yet in place despite an aggressive timeline the district spelled out in the plan approved by the state.

The school is one of five low performing schools that Aurora Public Schools grouped into an innovation zone, granting each school autonomy from various rules and policies so they can try different improvement strategies. Aurora Central’s plans focused on adopting a so-called competency-based learning model, which does away with traditional grade levels based on age and instead groups and advances students through levels based on what they know.

Officials say the plan included so many pieces that some changes took priority over others.

“Any plan we implement is only going to be as strong as how we implement it,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of Aurora Public Schools’ innovation zone schools. “One of our core pillars for the innovation zone is investing in people, so that’s where we started in the summer before the school year began.”

The innovation plan for Aurora Central — the only traditional high school in the innovation zone — included a timeline to start trying a competency-based model starting with ninth graders and adding one grade level at a time. An entire section in the plan covered the need for, and the details of, the competency based plan that would “provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned,” “provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” and increase engagement, “because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs.”

“We are confident we can assemble a core set of strong, committee, and driven staff that would be willing and motivated to pilot this approach with our 9th grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” district officials stated in the plan.

The work was to start over the summer with teachers and educators meeting to align the competencies and determine if the resources and tests available were enough. Those meetings started, Browne said, but weren’t completed. Many teachers were new and needed more training.

“We didn’t anticipate having that many new teachers,” Browne said.

District officials say they are still researching the model and whether it is the right fit for the school. In the meantime, other changes are being made including some that were part of the plan and some that weren’t.

“We are working very hard to implement the plan, but more importantly to improve the schools,” Browne said.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan could be under scrutiny soon as the state gets ready to decide on sanctions for schools, including Aurora Central, that have recorded five years of low state ratings. Among the options, state officials could recommend the school for closure, or turn over management to a third party.

The state could also approve an innovation plan in place of the more drastic sanctions, giving the school more time to show improvement while it makes the changes.

Exactly how those plans would be reviewed to determine if they should be given time to show improvement, and how they would be monitored as schools work on the changes, is still not clear.

Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said that his staff created a rubric that they used to look at Aurora Central’s innovation plan before it was approved by the state.

“We knew we were going to have innovation plans that come forward as accountability pathways and we knew we would need to look at those innovation plans through a different lens, so we created a rubric that sort of looks at it as a dramatic turnaround plan,” Sherman said. “We were trying to be proactive. Everyone at CDE thought their plan was good. We all can get behind it.”

However, Sherman later clarified that the earlier approval of the plan was not a sign that it was without faults. Before the state board approval, education department officials provided feedback that was critical of the plan, including concerns about how the school’s leadership would help put the new learning model in place and about the timeline for the “large number of initiatives.”

Browne said district officials are still not sure if Aurora Central’s innovation plan will be presented to the state as an accountability plan to avoid other state sanctions.

In the meantime as officials try improving the schools, the innovation zone team has an advisory group that includes teachers and school leaders meeting biweekly to constantly re-assess the needs of the schools in the innovation zone and prioritize the changes they make.

Included in the work that is happening at Central, Browne highlighted adjustments to teacher training days, training for school leadership teams through the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, and programs to help ninth graders transitioning to high school including a pilot where a middle school counselor from Boston K-8 school is traveling to Central once a week to keep track of students coming from that school.

“We feel very confident in the adjustments we have been making,” Browne said. “But we have a long time before we’re satisfied. The amount of growth that is necessary is not going to happen overnight.”

This story has been updated to add more context about Peter Sherman’s comments.