Round 2

UPDATED: State Board delays action on testing waivers

Updated at noon to include information about a new motion to eliminate penalties to districts with low testing participation rates.

The State Board of Education voted 5-1 Wednesday to delay action on testing waiver requests it has received from 20 districts. The board also voted to end penalties for districts whose test participation rates fall below required levels because of parents opting out.

The practical effect of the first vote is that those districts will have no legal justification not to give tests as scheduled in March. The motion specified that the board will reconsider the waiver issue at either its next regular meeting in March, or a special meeting if members decide to call one.

Today’s delay keeps alive controversy and the confusion kicked off when the board voted 4-3 in January to allow districts to seek waivers from the first part of the state’s new language arts and math tests, due to be given next month.

That January motion, made by new Republican member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, directed education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers that applied for such exemptions. The motion passed despite cautions from Hammond and Department of Education staff that the two portions of the tests can’t be separated.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl also told the board in January it didn’t have the authority to grant waivers. Hammond said then he wouldn’t issue waivers until he’d received formal advice from the attorney general’s office. That advice came last week, when Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued her formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the department have the legal authority to grant testing waivers. Such an opinion has the force of law, unlike Dyl’s informal advice.

Second resolution adds more complications

The board also created a new element of uncertainty Wednesday by passing a separate motion that seeks to exempt districts from any penalty if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in testing this spring because of parents opting out. The vote was 4-2.

As with the board’s original waiver vote in January, the vote’s legal effect is unclear. “This motion probably would violate the terms” in the state’s accountability agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, said Dyl.

“That does cause us a problem with the feds,” said Hammond, an issue that could “force me to ask for another opinion from the attorney general’s office.”

The federal NCLB law requires that all students in specified grades undergo annual testing in language arts and math. The federal government requires 95 percent participation and requires states to impose penalties on districts that fail to meet that threshold in two or more tests.

Colorado’s current penalty is a reduction in accreditation ratings for districts that don’t comply.

Explaining what would happen in light of the board vote, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said, “You’d have to submit an amendment to the feds … negotiate that amendment and see if they would approve it.” A possible amendment would propose a different penalty than loss of accreditation status.

Board members Durham and Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver argued for the motion. “We can’t hold districts liable for what parents want,” said Flores, hinting at the possibility of increased numbers of parents opting students out of tests this spring.

Durham argued that eliminating the current penalty is needed “so that pressure on parents hopefully will be eliminated.” He alleged that some districts and administrators put inappropriate pressure on parents to have students take tests.

The board’s one-hour discussion of testing waivers and the participation penalty was marked by some confusion.

Durham originally included the two ideas in a single motion. But chair Marcia Neal objected to that, as well as to voting on a motion that wasn’t available to members in writing.

Neal, participating by phone from Grand Junction because of a medical issue, was in and out of the conversation and didn’t participate in the two votes.

The discussion was marked by some tension, particularly between Durham and members of the attorney general’s staff.

At one point, after not getting the answer he wanted, Durham said to Dyl, “I’ll try one more time. It’s a yes or no question.”

Durham also complained that Colorado has become “bogged down in a regimen of testing” and criticized the attorney general’s office for not laying out a strategy for dealing with federal requirements.

He also scoffed at concerns that Colorado would lose federal education funding if it violates various requirements.

“I’ve yet to see” the federal government pull funding in such cases, he said.

Board is one voice in larger testing debate

The board’s January action was part of a broader backlash against state standardized testing that has united groups ranging from the Colorado Education Association to suburban parent activists to legislators from both parties.

There’s been rising concern about the amount of testing, particularly after 11th grade language arts and math tests were added, along with science and social studies tests for high school seniors.

Many teachers and administrators complain the new state school readiness and early-literacy assessments consume too much classroom time, and that giving this spring’s tests online will cut instruction time as students are shuttled back and forth to school computer labs to take tests.

And conservative critics object to the fact that the new tests are based on the Common Core State Standards, which they see as an infringement on state and local control of education.

Six testing bills already have been introduced in the 2015 legislative session. They range from a fairly simple reduction in testing to wide-ranging measures that propose to reduce testing and withdraw from the Common Core and the PARCC testing group.

Lawmakers face the same problem as the state board – current federal requirements leave states with limited options to reduce testing beyond a certain level or to give districts assessment flexibility.

The full legislative testing debate isn’t expected to develop until next month, but it’s widely assumed at the Capitol that lawmakers will approve some reduction in the amount of testing.

This spring’s tests

Here’s the rundown on the testing schools and students face this spring.

The first window – Districts can start giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades 3-11 on March 2. The so-called “testing window” remains open until April 3. An individual district has four weeks within which to schedule tests to accommodate computer availability and other needs.

The first part – The initial section of the language arts and math tests emphasize essay questions and other “constructed response” items that take longer to score. That’s why they’re given earlier.

The second window – Districts may test between April 20 and May 22.

The second part – Called “end of year” assessments, these tests are intended to assess student knowledge of what they’ve learned through the year and are mostly multiple-choice items that can be scored quickly. The ultimate goal of the new tests is to have results available before the school year ends, but that won’t happen this year.

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to 4th and 7th graders, and 8th graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28.

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for 3rd grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring.

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9 ¾ hours for 3rd graders, 10 hours in grades 4-5, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school.

Who wanted a waiver

As of Wednesday, 20 districts had applied for waivers. Most are small, but the list includes two larger suburban systems: Douglas and Jefferson counties. Many smaller districts used a sample resolution that had been circulated by the Rural Alliance, a group that advocates for the interests of small districts. Most districts asked for exemption from the first set of tests, but a few asked for broader waivers. They enroll more than 174,000 students, nearly 20 percent of the 889,006 students statewide.

Buffalo, Byers, Dolores, Dougco, Eaton, Elizabeth, Haxtun, Hayden, Jeffco, Julesburg, Kit Carson, Lone Star, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Weld RE-7 (Platte Valley), Weld RE-9 (Ault), Weld RE-10J (Briggsdale), Weldon, Wiggins and Wiley.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”