No exit

State has limited flexibility on testing, feds say

Colorado has few options if policymakers want to create a more flexible state testing system, or one that lets districts make their own assessment choices, the State Board of Education learned Wednesday.

The board has been paying a lot of attention to testing ever since 2014 TCAP results were released in August, trying to make its voice heard in the growing state debate over the issue. (See this story for background on board member views.)

Among the key questions in that debate is whether Colorado should reduce testing to only what’s required by the federal government, if it’s possible to test just sample groups of students and if districts can have flexibility to choose their own tests.

A growing number of districts have raised questions about their testing options, Department of Education officials say.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond formally posed some key questions to the U.S. Department of Education, and the board was briefed on the answers at its monthly meeting. It wasn’t what some members wanted to hear.

Here’s a summary of the questions and answers. Read the full DOE letter here – warning, the language is pretty dense. Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen called it “a weighty document and somewhat difficult to work through.”

What are the federal requirements for frequency, grade levels and content?

The department and the board basically learned what they already know: that all children must be tested in language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science tests are required once at each level of K-12 education. Colorado tests considerably more than those requirements – get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.

Do states have to give the same tests to all students?

Yes. A state “may not assess only a sample of students, even if that sample is representative of students in each LEA (local education agency – jargon for ‘district’) or the state as a whole,” read the letter. (The exception to this is that a separate test can be used for students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.”)

“That’s a big issue that we get a lot of questions about. Sampling is not allowed,” Owen said.

Can a state use a combination of state and local tests?

The DOE letter says there’s “some flexibility” on this issue, but it goes on to detail a long list of difficult regulatory hurdles that would to be jumped for this to happen.

What happens if a state doesn’t meet federal requirements?

It could lose a lot of federal money, particularly Title I funds for low-income students and IDEA money for special education students. Prompted by a question from SBE chair Paul Lundeen, Owen said the worst-case estimate “easily” could be $500 million for Colorado. (The DOE letter outlines a long list of “progressive discipline” steps that would be used before the cash would be cut off.)

Can the secretary of education waive testing requirements?

No and yes – sort of. Testing requirements cannot be waived for individual districts. At the state level, “the secretary would likely not lightly waive such core requirements absent compelling reasons that their waiver would benefit students,” read the letter.

“We’ve reached far and wide to find any loophole.” Owen said.

“Wow,” said Lundeen, thanking CDE staff for pushing the DOE for answers. “This is an issue present in the minds of every educator in Colorado today.”

Hammond indicated he thinks CDE didn’t find any loopholes and that current federal law doesn’t give states many options. “The key to this is reauthorization of ESEA,” the main body of federal education law that a divided Congress hasn’t been able to act on. He also said changing the testing system might draw scrutiny from DOE’s civil rights office.

“With the legislation we have we’re stuck. … We basically ran out of options for next year,” Hammond said, referring to the full rollout of the new online PARCC tests in the spring of 2015.

Lundeen, who’s leaving the board because he’s running unopposed for a seat in the state House, urged the board and the department to keep researching alternatives to PARCC. Lundeen is not a fan of the current system.

He also noted that earlier this year the board passed a resolution urging the state withdraw from PARCC (see story). Denver member Elaine Gantz Berman reminded him that the vote was 4-3. The legislature paid no mind to that resolution.

Testing is expected to be a key education issue for the 2015 legislature. The 2014 legislative session more or less evaded the issue by creating a task force to study testing. (See this Chalkbeat story for the latest on what that group is doing.)

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County