Testing Madness

Two Colorado high schools expect mass opt-outs from tests this week

PHOTO: via CMAS Protest (YouTube)
Students at Fairview High School in Boulder, in a YouTube video, explained why they're opting-out of this fall's standardized tests.

For the first time, two Colorado school districts could see their high schools face sanctions because a critical mass of seniors are refusing to take the state’s new standardized tests.

In what will likely be the largest — and most public — assault so far on the state’s school accountability system, nearly 200 high school students at a Boulder high school are expected to opt-out of the new standardized tests they’re supposed to take Thursday and Friday. Instead, they will hold a public protest Thursday morning outside their school.

And in Douglas County, at least one principal has made a formal plea to parents to do what ever they can to have their students take the social studies and science tests this week.

And rumors continue to grow that more schools across the state will see similar levels of students opting out.

While opponents to standardized tests cite many reasons why they opt their students out, students at Boulder’s Fairview High School, where the public demonstration will take place, say they’ve been tested their entire educational career and enough is enough.

“We want to change the community for the better, and change the way our education system works,” said Rachel Perley, a senior at Fairview High School and one of the lead organizers behind the protest.

In interviews with Chalkbeat Colorado, and in a YouTube video and open letter to school and state officials, Boulder students said the new exams won’t have a direct impact on their college or career trajectory. They also claimed the tests don’t align with their high school curriculum. And they fear the gap between their ninth grade science class and their senior year won’t serve as a reliable indicator of how much they learned.

While the decision by students and their families not to take the test will have little impact on their future, their respective schools might face repercussions not seen before in Colorado.

State law requires that schools maintain a 95 percent participation rate in each exam. But if 95 percent of students don’t participate in two or more content areas the school’s accreditation rating is lowered. If a school’s accreditation drops too low, and stays there for five years, the school district that operates that school could face more sanctions.

And while it’s likely that this is the first year that any school is in serious jeopardy of not meeting that 95 percent threshold, it’s not yet clear how the state might respond if schools miss that bar.

Some schools, fearful of a lowered accreditation rating, are urging parents who are wavering to make their students participate.

Douglas County’s Mountain Vista High School Principal Michael Weaver, in a Oct. 31 letter to parents, said the number of opt-out letters he’s received already crosses a threshold that puts his school’s accreditation in jeopardy. He requested parents do whatever they can to make sure their students take the test.

“I am certain that the Class of 2015 understands that Mountain Vista and our staff have never considered opting out or refusing to support them as they have navigated through their high school careers,” he wrote.

Other schools are keeping meticulous track of parent refusals, hoping that evidence will be sufficient to keep their accreditation rating. At urging of state officials, they’re collecting letters, emails, and keeping phone logs of conversations.

As of Friday, administrators at Fairview had 180 letters of refusal, or 30 percent of the senior class.

“It will be interesting if our accreditation is jeopardized because of the lack of participation of CMAS,” said Don Stensrud, Fairview’s principal. “Kids here literally go to all the Ivy’s across the nation.”

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he’s had ongoing conversations with the students behind the Fairview protest and that he is empathetic to their concerns about testing. But, he said, his schools will still proctor the tests.

“What I’ve conveyed to them — and nothing has been confrontational — is that ‘just so you know, you’re not in a very different place than where your board of education or superintendent is. We’re having those same conversations with state lawmakers, but we’re under a legal obligation to administer these tests,'” he said.

Colorado has an established opposition to the state’s exams, and small number of families have always chosen to opt their students out of standardized tests. But on average, the number of students who don’t take the test based on parent refusal — Colorado’s technical term for opting out — has been less than one percent. Even last year, when it appeared the opt-out movement was stronger than ever, opt-outs only ticked up slightly.

But the students in Boulder are working outside the established opt-out community and said they’ve come to their conclusions about the new tests on their own.

Because of that, the protest and apparent increase of students refusing to take the test at other Colorado schools is likely to provide established opponents of standardized tests with plenty of ammunition as the state continues to wrestle with the question of standardized exams.

“A lot of it has to do — and I’ve been wondering what is the difference is this year, myself — with trying to test seniors, because that’s crazy,” said Karen McGraw, a Mountain Vista High School parent and leader at United Opt Out, an organization that organizes parents against standardized tests across the nation.

McGraw has opted her children out of Colorado’s testing system for three years.

“I don’t think the tests are good for kids, I don’t think they’re good for teachers, I don’t think they’re good for the future of public education,” McGraw said.

The debate over the November tests mirrors a much larger conversation happening across the nation and state.

Parents in Florida blasted their state’s testing system at a recent parent meeting. During the summer, media personality Glenn Beck held a virtual town hall to rally opponents to the Common Core State Standards and their aligned exams. And last spring, two teachers in New York decided to not administer the tests themselves.

Meanwhile in Colorado, parents, school officials, and lawmakers have for the past year been embroiled in a debate about what role standardized assessments should play in the classroom and in the state’s accountability system.

“I do know we have a number of families who believe this [new] test does not make sense,” said Liz Fagen, Douglas County’s superintendent.

Earlier this year, the school district hosted a series of meetings to discuss the state’s testing system.

While Fagen declined to discuss specific numbers of parent refusals the district has received so far this fall, she said, “It seems to me, [the number of opt-outs] have been building over the last few years. But our response is we’re required to give these assessments. And we’re going to — in good faith — administer these tests, document parent refusals, and provide makeups.”

Meanwhile, the district will continue to lobby for a change to the system, she said.

“We’re big fans of accountability, but we don’t think this is the answer,” Fagen said.

Currently, every Colorado student enrolled between the third and 11th grade are required to take language arts and math exams. Also, one grade per elementary, middle, and high school level are required to take a social studies and science test. High school juniors are also required to take the ACT.

During the last legislative session, a bill that would have allowed some school districts waivers from the state’s standardized tests — which goes above and beyond what’s required by the federal government — was amended to instead form a review committee to study the issue. That committee, which is currently on a listening tour throughout the state, must make recommendations — if any — to the General Assembly next year.

Broadly, supporters of the exams believe there is power in the data the tests yield. They believe the results can hold schools accountable to teach every student regardless of race, economic background, or ability, and can inform how effective teachers are at their jobs. Opponents, meanwhile, believe the tests are punitive, gobble up too much instruction time, and are nothing more than a ploy to make money for curriculum companies.

Which path the legislature may take next session is unknown.

If the Fairview students have it their way, the senior social studies and science tests will be abolished.

“Hopefully, the protest make a change,” Perley, the Fairview senior, said.

Fairview High School students explain why they’re opting out

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.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.