Testing Madness

Boulder students rally against senior tests, other districts see fewer students take exam

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

BOULDER — Instead of taking the state’s science and social studies tests, seniors at Fairview High School here braved below-zero temperatures to rally against a testing system they believe is burdensome and unnecessary.

As part of the protest, they waived signs at passing cars that read “legislators listen to the educators,” ate doughnuts, and drank hot cocoa. They also collected canned goods for a local food bank, did jumping jacks to keep warm, and fired off a string of letters to lawmakers explaining why they opted-out of new tests that are supposed to measure how proficient they are in social studies and science.

“We never had a voice in the first place,” said senior Rachel Perely. “They kinda just threw the test at us without [asking us] what is the student input on having another test as seniors. So, we’re out here saying we need this voice and we’re trying to get that conversation rolling.”

While the student protest is without a doubt the loudest and most public assault on the state’s testing system so far, it is just the latest in a growing cacophony calling on state lawmakers and bureaucrats to scale back — if not eliminate — the state’s testing system.

Across the metro region, some of Colorado’s most distinguished school districts saw low numbers of seniors participating in the tests.

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As of this morning, only 3 percent of the entire senior class at Cherry Creek High School took the state’s assessments due to opt outs.

“We respect the decision that students have made for themselves,” said Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District. “And look forward to having discussion with policy makers about how to go forward.”

Preliminary numbers from Douglas County showed participation by their seniors ranged from 27 percent to 80 percent.

At Fairview High only nine students took the exam. That means fewer than 1 percent of seniors took the test there.

While the students who didn’t participate might not face consequences, those kind of numbers mean trouble, or at least extra paperwork, for school districts. Colorado law requires that schools maintain a 95 percent participation rate in each exam. 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.

Given the political landscape, the department of education has issued guidance to school districts that they may provide evidence that they administered the assessments and made a good-faith effort to have students participate in order to protect their accreditation. That means schools and districts will likely need to turn over letters of refusal from parents, log phone conversations, and offer makeup assessments.

While Colorado has long had a community vocally opposed to the test, they haven’t gotten very far. Prior to this fall’s exams, the number of families who refused to allow their students take the tests barely broke 1 percent.

During the 2014 legislative session, the debate about standardized exams intensified among parents, educators, lawmakers and officials at the Colorado Department of Education. At issue is how much standardized testing is too much and what, if any, changes should be made to the testing system.

As a result of the debate, a committee has been established to study the issue of testing and make recommendation to the General Assembly next year.

Colorado’s testing system goes beyond the federal requirements, which says schools are required to test third through eighth grades in language arts and math. Also, one grade level in elementary, middle, and high school must be assessed in science. Colorado also tests high schools through the 11th grade in language arts and math. And this year, the state added the social studies tests for some elementary, middle, and high school students.

This is the first year seniors have had to take standardized tests.

Meanwhile, state officials are watching and listening and ready to engage in what the future of standardized exams look like in Colorado.

“Colorado still has to have that conversation — what is that we want from our state system,” said Joyce Zurowski, executive director of assessment at CDE. “I think that conversation should be occurring.”

Zurkowski noted the state’s current system — including the senior test — was borne out of a similar conversation in 2010.

“This new assessment system has been built off those assumptions, those priorities, those values, and it may very well be across time those have shifted,” she said Wednesday. “We need to know how those have shifted, and we can try to adjust within the confines of the law.”

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.

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

ACT bump

Tennessee sees ACT gains after becoming first state to fund retakes for all students

Last fall, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to pay for its students to retake the ACT college entrance exam.

On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the investment paid off.

Nearly 26,000 students in the Class of 2017 opted to participate in the state’s first ACT Senior Retake Day in October. Of those, nearly 40 percent got higher scores. And about 5 percent — 1,331 students in all — raised their composite above the 21 necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition.

The ACT retake also resulted in more students hitting the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, an area where Tennessee has struggled. The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks increased from 21.5 percent to 26.8 percent.

Additionally, over a third of school districts increased their ACT average, with the best gains in Maryville City, which increased its composite average by a full point.

Under the initiative, the State Department of Education paid the fees for students to take the test for a second time in hopes of boosting their scores and chances for college scholarships.

“Our goal is to open more doors for students after high school, and these results are one more step toward that vision,” McQueen said. “We want students to graduate from high school with the ability to access whatever path they want to explore, and we know too often low ACT scores create a barrier.”

The retake day cost the state $760,000. ACT provided an additional $353,000 in fee waivers for low-income students.

Gov. Bill Haslam has included money to continue the program in his budget proposal for 2017-18.