Here we go again

Now is the time to discuss scrapping Colorado’s two-year old testing system, state board says

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and chairman Steve Durham, listen to public comment at the State Board of Education's September meeting.

Less than two weeks after Colorado learned how districts and schools fared in year two of new standardized tests, a majority of State Board of Education members signaled Wednesday that they want to explore junking the system and starting all over again.

Board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, was the most vocal proponent of launching serious discussions of pulling the state out of PARCC, a multistate testing consortium that continues to bleed members amid public backlash.

Durham told his colleagues that he believes this fall will be the last chance to make changes to the state’s testing system “before inertia sets in” and the board is consumed with other priorities. By a straw poll of 5-2, the board agreed to take up the issue formally later this fall, setting the stage for another battle in Colorado’s long-running testing wars.

“If we don’t do anything now,” Durham said, “we won’t do anything.”

The state’s testing system was established through a series of state and federal laws designed to measure how well students are meeting new, more demanding state academic standards. Both the standards and the tests have come under attack from a vocal group of students, parents and others, especially in Colorado’s wealthy suburbs and rural communities.

In an effort to temper concerns, lawmakers in 2015 trimmed the number of tests students take. But the legislature stopped short of ending the state’s run with PARCC.

Durham and a bipartisan majority on the board have long criticized both Colorado’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in math and English, and the PARCC tests, which are aligned with the standards. Earlier this year, Durham in a private letter directed then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall to end the state’s relationship with PARCC.

Until now, the board has had little authority to change the system.

But as of 2014, Colorado is no longer required to be a governing member of a multi-state testing group. A Department of Education spokeswoman said the department has asked the state Attorney General’s office for guidance on whether additional legislation is needed to use a different set of assessments. The state’s agreement with PARCC ends June 30, 2017.

One of two national testing cooperatives, PARCC began with more than 20 members and is now down to six.

For the state board to make any changes to the testing system for the 2017-18 school year, the state education department would need to start lining up possible alternatives to PARCC exams by this spring, said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s assessment officer.

Board members Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff, both Democrats, suggested the board could cause more harm than good by switching tests now.

The state is due for a mandatory review of its academic standards, which must conclude by 2018. If the standards change, the tests will need to change, too. Both Schroeder and Goff said that considering the circumstances, exploring a change to assessments now is premature.

“I don’t know how we can align a system of tests without knowing what standards we’re asking to be measured,” Goff said.

A handful of teachers during public comment urged the state board to leave the state’s current system alone, fearing another abrupt change would destroy any trust left in the system.

“The chaos we experienced last year with the brand new test will be repeated once again,” said Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher from Columbine High School in Littleton. “And students, teachers and parents will be left to wonder why testing is even happening when the data is not useable.”

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.”