Let's add a test

High school students would face new civics test under bipartisan proposal

Photograph of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo.

Colorado students would be required to pass a civics test used by the federal government to graduate from high school under a new bill promoted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The measure, House Bill 16-148, would increase statewide testing just a year after lawmakers cut back on assessments, including Colorado’s current social studies test.

Prime sponsor Sen. Owen Hill said he’s been working on the idea for three years because “civics education has been left by the wayside” due to the education system’s focus on language arts and math.

The Colorado Springs Republican said he finally found the “right avenue” in a testing proposal being pushed nationwide by two related Arizona nonprofits, the Civics Education Initiative and the Joe Foss Institute. Eight states passed such laws in 2015.

The new bill would tap a non-traditional testing source – the civics portion of the exam the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gives to immigrants who want to become naturalized citizens.

“This is a simple solution,” said Hill, saying the tests are taken online and that districts and schools could administer the exams whenever they chose.

What’s the naturalization civics test look like? Take some sample exams. 

Students would take that test in 9th grade and have to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions in order to graduate. Students could keep taking the test through 12th grade until they passed.

The new exam would add to a longstanding state requirement that every student “satisfactorily complete” a civics class to graduate.

Disabled students wouldn’t have to take the test, and principals or superintendents could waive the requirement for students who meet all other graduation requirements and can show “extraordinary circumstances.” And test results would not be used for educator evaluation.

Hill, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “I certainly think there will be pushback” on the idea of increasing testing. “I certainly don’t expect a unanimous vote.”

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo
Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood is cautious about the bill. Kerr is a social studies teacher and the senior Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.

“I don’t think it’s the best policy for the legislature to mandate tests for graduation requirements,” he said. High school students “absolutely” should be able to correctly answer 60 questions on the naturalization test, he said, but that shouldn’t be tied to graduation.

The state constitution guarantees local control of curriculum, and Colorado school districts fiercely defend their independence. The State Board of Education last year set “graduation guidelines,” which have been received with a fair amount of grumbling.

Kerr also said he’s concerned that the naturalization test “is not based on Colorado state standards,” as are currently required statewide tests in language arts, math, science and social studies.

Chris Elnicki, social studies coordinator for the Cherry Creek Schools, also has questions about the bill. “There certainly is concern that the requirement of this exam for graduation will narrow instructional focus on test prep and shift the focus away from higher order thinking. … The current civics standards found within the Colorado Academic Standards in Social Studies are a better guide to educators hoping to inspire a lifelong commitment to civic responsibility and engagement within their students. Schools should avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures.”

But Marcia Neal, former chair of the State Board of Education, is enthusiastic about the bill.

“I would certainly be in support of this bill,” said Neal, a retired social studies teacher who has long advocated for greater emphasis on the subject. “The teaching of social studies in general is in decline.”

Colorado rolled out its social studies tests in 2014, and they were originally given to all students in grades 4, 7 and 12. The fall high school tests sparked widespread student boycotts in some districts. The exams assess a broader range of knowledge than just civics.

This spring those tests will be given only to some 4th and 7th graders. High school tests will resume next year. Last year some lawmakers wanted to eliminate social studies tests. But they were saved by a Kerr-engineered compromise under which the exams are given in only a third of schools each year.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs / File photo

Hill said he expects Senate Education to consider the bill in the next couple of weeks. He’s assembled a bipartisan group of 13 sponsors, seven in the Senate and six in the House. But only two GOP members of the nine-member Senate Education Committee are signed on. Three members of the 11-member House Education Committee are sponsoring the bill, two Republicans and one Democrat.

Last year’s testing reform law passed by wide margins in both houses – only 13 of 100 lawmakers voted no. But some lawmakers think it didn’t go far enough.

The only 2016 proposal to reduce testing is Senate Bill 16-005, which would eliminates 9th grade language arts and math tests. It’s backed primarily by three Republicans and one Democrat on Senate Education and is not expected to pass.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”