Growing pains

Three possible explanations for why students with special needs didn’t fare as well on PARCC

When state officials this week released new data showing how much students had grown academically year-to-year on state tests, one statistic jumped out.

The gap separating students with special needs from other students had grown dramatically, leaving educators and advocates searching for answers.

Colorado’s student growth report calculates how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who start in a similar place academically. Students with special needs not only lag behind other students, but this year’s data showed they are learning at a slower rate than two years ago.

Before we get to possible explanations, an important note about these students, who have individualized education plans that define goals and services each student should get.

Students have these plans for a variety of reasons. They include speech impediments, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities. A very small number have cognitive disabilities, experts say.

That means the overwhelming majority of students with such plans should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as their peers without special needs if they have the right help, experts say.

While state officials and experts we spoke with are concerned about this year’s results, most cautioned that it was too early to reach firm conclusions or know whether this is the start of a trend or an outlier.

Here are some possible explanations for the growing growth gap for students with special needs:

Students with individualized education plans may not have enough access to inclusive classrooms with the critical thinking they need to do well on tests (and in life).

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English and math, teachers and students have been asked to make fundamental changes in the classroom.

A greater emphasis has been placed on critical thinking over rote memorization. Students are being asked to read longer and denser passages and cite evidence in written responses.

Students with disabilities aren’t getting that opportunity, experts say.

“Too often kids with disabilities just don’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the National Center for Education Outcomes, which focuses on underserved students. “The reading and writing (on the assessments) were real challenges. Students need the opportunity to learn the grade-level content. Once they do that, they’ll do much, much better on these assessments.”

A report Lazarus co-authored surveyed teachers in states that used the PARCC exams or another multi-state test, Smarter Balanced. It found:

  • Students with special needs were not used to reading long passages like those found on the tests.
  • Those same students were not used to writing extended responses and lacked basic computer skills.
  • They also had difficulty using evidence to justify their answers and lacked basic research skills.

Angela Denning, the state education department’s special education chief, said state monitoring found only about 60 percent of students with special needs spent 80 percent or more of their time in classrooms with the general student population.

That’s not enough, she said.

“My bet is that schools with small or no growth gaps have students with disabilities receiving good instruction in those core areas in the regular education classrooms” with help and instructional strategies tailored for them, she said.

Denver Public Schools, which has one of the largest growth gaps between students with disabilities and other students, is focusing more on including all students in regular classroom work. Ten schools are part of a new pilot program seeking to better incorporate students with disabilities in general classrooms.

The district is also training teachers to write better learning plans for students with special needs to include more data, and goals for improvement and meeting academic standards.

“We need to have our results translate to all kids,” said Josh Drake, DPS’s executive director for exceptional students.

Pam Bisceglia, a coordinator for AdvocacyDenver, which champions the rights of students with special needs, said both special education and general education teachers need more cross-training on how to better meet the needs of students regardless of what classroom they are in.

“There always has to be a shared responsibility to meeting kids’ needs,” she said.

While the new computer-based state tests have features meant to put students with special needs on a level playing field, that doesn’t mean students and teachers know how to use them.

The PARCC exams, which are mostly taken on computers, come with plenty of bells and whistles. A 200-plus page manual describes in detail what can be done to help students, including larger fonts, having passages read aloud and more.

“PARCC has tons of stuff built in for accommodations, but that doesn’t mean that’s better,” said Ann Morrison, an associate professor at the School of Education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “What we should look for is high degrees of ease of use … My sense about PARCC is that there is not an ease of use.”

Teacher and student frustrations with technology could put the results in question, Morrison said.

“Anxiety gets in the way of learning and demonstrating learning,” she said.

A PARCC spokeswoman said the group tests the tools used by students and is adding new ones. In 2016, PARCC included a function that allowed math problems to be read aloud in both English and Spanish, and in 2017 PARCC will offer a Braille version of the test.

Bisceglia said that while there was some confusion about how schools provided accommodations to students during PARCC’s first year, she heard of no complaints this year.

Kids with special needs opted out of the tests at a higher rate than their peers.

Colorado’s PARCC scores have been called into question because of the large number of students choosing not to take the tests in higher grades — mostly in high-performing schools.

Opt-out rates also are slightly higher for students with individualized education plans, state data show.

Derek Briggs, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation, suggested that within that group, students more likely to score well were the ones who skipped out.

“It’s a relatively small group,” Briggs said about the number of students with education plans. “It doesn’t take that much [to skew results].”

Denning, the state’s special education chief, said she’s asking an advisory council of parents and educators to examine why opt-out numbers are higher in the special education community.

Testing Testing

Calculator mix-up could force some students to retake ISTEP, and Pearson is partially to blame

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

ISTEP scores for thousands of students across the state will be thrown out this year, including at two Indianapolis private schools, according to state officials.

The mishap can be traced back to calculators. Students at 20 schools used calculators on a section of the 2017 ISTEP math test when they shouldn’t have — in at least one district because of incorrect instructions from Pearson, the company that administers the tests in Indiana.

It’s a small glitch compared to the massive testing issues Indiana experienced with its previous testing company, CTB McGraw Hill. But years of problems have put teachers, students and parents on high alert for even minor hiccups. In 2013, for example, about 78,000 students had their computers malfunction during testing. Pearson began administering ISTEP in 2016.

The calculator mix-up involving Pearson happened in Rochester Community Schools, located about two hours north of Indianapolis. About 700 students in three schools received the incorrect instructions.

Molly Deuberry, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that Rochester is the only district known to have received the incorrect instructions, but the state is also investigating calculator-related problems at 19 other schools.

According to federal rules, students who use calculators on non-calculator test sections must have their scores labeled as “undetermined.” Current sophomores will need to retake the test, since passing the 10th-grade exam is a graduation requirement in Indiana. Students will have multiple opportunities to do so, including during the summer, state officials said.

It’s not clear how the invalidated scores will affect those schools’ A-F letter grades. It is up to the Indiana State Board of Education to handle A-F grade appeals, which districts can request once grades are released.

“The Department and State Board will collaborate to ensure that the State Board receives sufficient detail about this incident when reviewing the appeals,” the education department said in an email.

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said in an email that they would work with the education department to follow up on the calculator issues and correct their processes for next year.

“In some cases, Pearson inadvertently provided inaccurate or unclear guidance on the use of calculators during testing,” Overland said. “In these instances, we followed up quickly to help local school officials take corrective action.”

Here are the districts and schools the state says had students incorrectly use calculators on this year’s ISTEP:

  • Covington Christian School, Covington
  • Eastbrook South Elementary, Eastbrook Schools
  • Eastern Hancock Elementary School, Eastern Hancock County Schools
  • Emmanuel-St. Michael Lutheran School, Fort Wayne
  • Frankfort Middle School, Frankfort Community Schools
  • George M Riddle Elementary School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Lasalle Elementary School, School City of Mishawaka
  • New Haven Middle School, East Allen County Schools
  • Rochester Community Middle School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Rochester Community High School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Saint Boniface School, Lafayette
  • Saint Joseph High School, South Bend
  • Saint Roch Catholic School, Indianapolis
  • Silver Creek Middle School, West Clark Community Schools
  • St. Louis de Montfort School, Lafayette
  • Tennyson Elementary School, Warrick County Schools
  • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, School City of Hammond
  • Trinity Christian School, Indianapolis
  • Waterloo Elementary School, DeKalb County Schools
  • Westfield Middle School, Westfield-Washington Schools

This story has been updated to include comments from Pearson.

End of an era

Colorado backing away from PARCC English and math tests, forging its own path

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

Colorado will begin shifting away from standardized tests developed as part of a controversial multi-state effort and toward tests developed mostly by Colorado educators.

The move, one consequence of a contract announced Wednesday by the state education department, will end Colorado’s membership in PARCC, one of two multi-state testing collectives that were supposed to allow for easy comparison across states but have fallen short of that promise.

However, Colorado will likely keep using some PARCC questions in the math and English tests given to students in grades three through eight, said Joyce Zurkowski, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of assessment. Doing so would ensure the state could track student academic growth data and continue rating schools without pause.

“We’re not tossing everything out and starting from scratch,” Zurkowski said. But “we are expecting that Colorado educators will be much more involved throughout the development process — and we’re going to need more Colorado educators to be involved in the process.”

The break from PARCC grew out of a December directive from the State Board of Education that the education department find a vendor that could reduce testing time, provide results within 30 days and give the state authority over test questions and administration policies.

That effectively ruled out sticking with PARCC because Colorado is but one founding member of the group’s governing board and can’t dictate all terms of the test.

State education officials said the multi-year transition on the math and English tests will begin next spring and should cause little disruption to classrooms.

State officials announced Wednesday that the multinational testing and technology company Pearson had won a competitive bidding process to administer the math and English tests. Pearson administers the current PARCC tests along with the state’s science and social studies tests, which are given annually to students in one grade in elementary, middle and high school.

“Because Pearson has been already providing the testing services for CMAS (the state’s tests) for a number of years, the transition to the new contract should be seamless for educators and students,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Educators and students are familiar with Pearson’s systems, so this will allow them to continue to concentrate on teaching and learning the Colorado Academic Standards, which is the content assessed by the tests.”

Results from next year’s tests will be comparable to past CMAS results because the standards, test questions and scoring are not dramatically changing, officials said.

Colorado has already changed math and English testing twice in the past decade, making comparing past results extremely difficult — if not impossible. Officials say it won’t be the case now because this is essentially a contract change. However, more significant test changes may need to be considered after the state’s academic standards revision process is completed in 2018.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who led the effort to abandon PARCC, was critical of the decision to continue using Pearson as the state’s testing administrator.

He pressed the department to ensure Pearson could deliver on the board’s directive, especially limiting testing time to eight hours and delivering results quickly.

“It simply can’t run on for days or weeks as it did,” he said, referring to the amount of time some schools needed to complete the tests.

A 13-member panel comprised of Colorado school administrators and education department staff reviewed bids from Pearson and one other company, Questar.

Pearson, the world’s largest textbook and testing company, has been criticized for its extensive lobbying practices to win business from states and school districts.

Zurkowski said the panel choose Pearson because of its user friendliness, superior technology to provide interactive question online and data privacy protections.

“Knowing our current legislation, and our board’s priorities in that area, we couldn’t go backward,” Zurkowski said, referring to Pearson’s ability to protect student data.

Reaction of the state’s announcement was mixed.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of the nonprofit education reform group Climb Higher Colorado, said the state’s decision was another step toward re-engaging families in the state’s testing system.

“We are seeing continued buy-in to our system of statewide assessments as a result of ongoing, thoughtful adjustments made by our state board, state Department of Education and legislature,” she said in a statement. “Most importantly, these changes simultaneously protect rigorous assessments aligned to the education standards and ensure continuity for our students, educators and systems of accountability.”

Angela Engel, a leader in the testing opt-out movement and founder of the nonprofit Uniting4Kids, said the change did little to alleviate her concerns about the role of standardized testing in schools.

“This new direction by the State Board of Education is simply another version of a bad idea,” she said in a statement. “Colorado has already changed test vendors, test names, and test styles – all with the same failed outcomes. Innovation and equity require an entirely different approach than administering a test.”

The state’s testing contract with Pearson can be renewed annually until 2024.

Under federal law, states must give English and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. They must also test students in science once in elementary, middle and high school.

Results are used to measure school quality. Schools and districts that repeatedly fall short are subject to state-ordered improvement plans — a process that has taken center stage this year at the state Board of Education. Results in some cases are also used to measure teacher performance.

The state had to make decisions about the future of its testing system; the state’s multiple contracts with Pearson and the PARCC organization began expiring this spring.

Colorado was one of the founding members of PARCC, which formed to develop tests measuring student’s mastery of Common Core academic standards in math and English.

PARCC became the focus of protest two years ago as part of a wave of anti-testing backlash. Large number of high school students, especially, opted out of PARCC tests, starting a long conversation that resulted in legislation that reduced the volume of state tests.

Colorado will become the latest in a long line of founding members of PARCC to leave the consortium. Five states and Washington, D.C., remain as governing members.

Because Colorado is no longer a member of the consortium, it will have no say in the development of the new questions that the group develops. State officials said they plan to only purchase test items from PARCC that Colorado teachers helped develop.