awaiting clarity

Expecting big changes to state testing this year? Don’t hold your breath

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

Some Colorado districts and lawmakers have long been itching to throw off the straitjacket of state standardized tests so they could experiment with alternative ways of gauging student learning.

A new federal law offers hope for such flexibility, but it appears unlikely Colorado legislators will take any major action on the issue this year.

“There’s not going to be significant legislation,” said Lakewood Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, chair of the House Education Committee.

The only proposal she foresees is the possibility lawmakers could direct the Colorado Department of Education study the issue.

Why? Lawmakers want to wait until the U.S. Department of Education fleshes out the details of the new law with regulations.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress late last year, leaves the familiar annual testing calendar in place. But the bill also offers grants that states can use to try to improve their testing systems. That could open the door for a states, for example, to use of multiple tests. The law also creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests.

What that will mean in practice remains to be seen. Experts who are creating new rules for the federal department that will accompany the law are just starting their work.

Asked whether ESSA allows multiple state tests, Assistant Commissioner Gretchen Morgan of CDE told the House Education Committee at a recent hearing that there is still much to learn about the new law.

“ESSA does still speak to a single state assessment. … We don’t know yet what to expect,” she said. “It’s going to be a while.”

The committee backed a bill to study options for future state test changes but defeated a bill aimed at making Colorado attractive for an upcoming federal testing pilot program.

The committee passed House Bill 16-1234, which would require the state education department to study possible alternative tests in language arts, math, science social studies and report back to the legislature.

“This is a study bill. It’s a do-nothing bill this year” but could lay some groundwork for the future, said sponsor Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs. As one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, Klingenschmitt has little clout in the Democratic-controlled House. If his bill doesn’t survive, Pettersen indicated the idea might be resurrected in another measure.

The other bill, House Bill 16-1131, called for the state education department to recommend local testing options to the State Board of Education and would have allowed the department to reduce testing under certain circumstances if Colorado participates in the ESSA pilot.

Sponsor Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill was intended to ensure a testing pilot program included in last year’s state testing reform law would be tailored to make it more attractive to districts.

Pettersen said she didn’t think the state needed a bill to do those things.

“I believe that’s correct,” Morgan replied.

The bill was killed on a 7-4 vote, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition

Testing alternatives might come into play in another bill. Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on a yet-to-be-introduced measure intended to give school districts some relief from state mandates, including how frequently some districts have to file improvement plans.

Wilson agreed his bill also could provide a vehicle for discussion of testing alternatives. But he doesn’t think that will happen this year. “I think that may wait for flexibility 2.0 legislation next year.”

Last year’s testing reform law included a provision creating a complicated, multi-year pilot program under which districts could experiment with different tests, but no district has taken up the offer.

“We haven’t received any notifications from districts or charter schools that they’re interested in doing that,” Morgan told the committee.

A group of 10 rural districts is working on what’s called the Student-Centered Accountability Project, hoping to design an alternative to the current state system for rating districts and schools. The group currently is seeking bids for management of the project and trying to determine costs.

Only two states, Arizona and Florida, are actively pursuing alternative tests, according to a recent Education Week article. A bill that would allow districts to choose from a menu of tests is headed to the governor’s desk in Arizona.

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.