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.

star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

 

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.