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.”

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

Starting early

It’s not just older students. Tennessee second-graders also started testing this week in nearly 100 districts

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.