Here we go again

TCAP results prompt State Board to take familiar ideological sides

The State Board of Education's smiling official photo

Today’s release of the 2014 TCAP scores sent members of the State Board of Education into a philosophical discussion that highlighted the group’s longstanding ideological divisions about education reform.

Member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver kicked off the discussion, calling the results “very, very troubling” and saying the history of relatively flat CSAP and TCAP results “is even more troubling that I imagined previously.” Berman is a Democrat and a former DPS board member who’s on the advisory committee of committee of Democrats for Education Reform – Colorado.

“If we really want to see some significant improvement, what’s it going to take?” she asked education Commissioner Robert Hammond. (See this story for more details on what Hammond and other Department of Education leaders thought about the test results.)

After Hammond and other CDE brass talked about department efforts, board member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction came in with another thought.

“There’s one element nobody’s talking about,” she said. “Students not taking responsibility for their own actions. … We teach them very early on that minimum work is OK in many cases. To me that is one of the really big missing pieces.” Republican Neal is a retired schoolteacher and former local board member who often is a swing vote on the board.

Member Deb Scheffel of Parker responded to Berman in a different way. “We’re going to continue to get these kind of results if we continue a regulatory approach to reform,” she said. “Students and parents need more choice. … We really need a different model, a different funding model so that money follows kids.” Scheffel is dean of the School of Education at Colorado Christian University.

“I second that,” murmured member Pam Mazanec of Larkspur, a Republican who’s been active in the Dougco school district.

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder suggested the board should perhaps take a closer look at the performance of choice schools, and Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada commented, “I can’t say that I have seen eye-popping examples of innovation” at non-traditional schools. Schroeder is a former college accounting professor, and Goff is retired Jeffco teacher and administrator.

“We’ve had decades to do it this way,” Mazanec said. “We’ve never tried the choice model. … I’d really like to give that one a try. I don’t know for sure if we’d get better results, but we’d have happier parents.”

Berman defended her own choice credentials, noting the extensive choices available in DPS but wondered about the diversity of many charter schools. “Deb, how many low-income kids of color go to those schools?” (Berman was referring to four charter schools whose students posted high ACT scores.)

“We need more schools like that so [those students] can go to them,” Scheffel responded.

Berman rocked her fellow board members a bit when she replied, “White parents will take their kids out [of choice schools] because they don’t want their kids to be with kids of color.”

Republican chair Paul Lundeen of Monument generally sides with Scheffel and Mazanec, and he did say, “I think we’re a regulatory track, and we’re trying to regulate our way out of this situation.” He said good schools aren’t rewarded and failing ones aren’t punished “like in the marketplace.”

But he tried to calm the situation, saying, “Let’s do this at another time” and praising Berman’s “eloquent and wonderful” remarks. “I respect very deeply your feedback.”

He and Berman went back and forth a bit more about choice until Lundeen said, “I don’t know exactly where the board would like to go with this conversation,” adding that the group wasn’t “in a position to give specific direction” to CDE right now.

Another ideological discussion avoided – or delayed

Another item on the board’s Thursday agenda was a Lundeen-proposed resolution strongly criticizing the planned new framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History class and test. The resolution criticized the framework because it allegedly “emphasizing negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” among other alleged lapses. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story.)

But Lundeen pulled the resolution off the agenda, saying other members had asked him for more time to think about it and that it might come up again at SBE’s September meeting.

The resolution was criticized by academics and school district officials. See this letter from University of Colorado history professor Fred Anderson for an example of that reaction. Fritz Fischer, director of history education at the University of Northern Colorado, sent this letter.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.