Test anxiety

School board testing discontent rumbles louder as more districts ask for waivers

Two more Colorado school boards have passed resolutions requesting waivers from state testing requirements, even though federal law bars such exemptions.

Boards in Montrose County and Dolores County both unanimously passed resolutions earlier this month. The Montrose resolution petitions “the Colorado State Board of Education for a 5-year waiver from PARCC and CMAS testing requirements.”

As Dolores Superintendent Bruce Hankins readily acknowledged, “Most people realize it’s a symbolic gesture, but I think it’s a gesture that needs to be out there.”

The board in Colorado Springs District 11 was first out of the box this year when it passed a similar resolution in September. The district since has decided not to press its request with the state Department of Education. But board vice president Elaine Naleski told the Colorado Springs Gazette, “We’re not ready to just drop everything. We’re still having the conversations.” (See full Gazette story here.)

Also in September, delegates attending a Colorado Association of School Boards meetng passed resolutions calling on the state to reduce testing to federal minimum requirements, allow parents to opt out of state tests without penalty to districts and to let districts use approved alternative tests instead of the state’s CMAS program.

“We hope that many, many districts will follow suit,” said Montrose Superintendent Mark MacHale, while noting, “We’re under no fantasy that the state board will grant this.” But it’s important to raise the issue, he said, “Because most of us feel our voices have been lost.”

Prompted by district concerns and State Board questions, CDE officials recently queried the U.S. Department of Education about testing flexibility. The answer was that the state has few if any options on measures suggested by testing critics, such as sample testing and use of local tests. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for more details.)

Jane Urschel, CASB deputy executive director, said it’s hard to guess how many more school boards may pass testing resolutions but noted, “At the CASB delegate assembly the conversation was that there’s too much assessment, and the majority of people feel that way.”

Paula Stephenson of the Rural Alliance said small districts feels their concerns haven’t been addressed in the past. “As a result, more and more of our member districts, with the support of their parents and communities, are standing up and saying, ‘This is not OK. We will no longer stand idly by and voluntarily participate in reform measures that we know are harmful to our schools and students.’”

Testing worries aren’t limited to only small districts. Several big-district superintendents who participated in a Denver panel discussion on Wednesday were critical of the state’s current testing system. (See this story for what they said.)

Debate about the state testing system has been bubbling for a year but seems to have intensified in recent months.

New online social studies and science tests were given in two grades last spring, and the somewhat sobering scores were released just this week (see story).

Next spring’s online language arts and math tests for grades 3-11 are fast approaching, raising anxiety levels in many districts, and the testing window for 12th grade science and social studies tests opens next week.

MacHale is skeptical of the value of those tests, noting, “We will get the results back when they’re in college.”

“What are we going to do with that?” asked Hankins.

An appointed Standards and Assessments Task Force has been studying the issue over the summer and fall and is supposed to make recommendations to the 2015 legislature. The group hasn’t yet made any major decisions and has three more meetings scheduled.

The State Board has discussed testing several times in recent months, and the issue is expected to come up again in November. Montrose district leaders want to make their case to the board in person.

The upcoming legislative session will be key. “I think people may be waiting to see what happens at the Capitol,” Urschel said. “Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in control, one of the top issues is going to be assessment.”

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.

Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: