the end of parcc?

Time to find new, shorter standardized tests, state board directs education department

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.

The State Board of Education on Thursday directed the education department to find new standardized tests that take students less time and whose results will be delivered faster.

The board wants math and English tests that will take students in grades three through eight no more than eight hours to complete — slightly less time than current exams take, according to the state.

Colorado’s contract with the PARCC assessment, which the state has used for its federally required English and math test since 2015, expires after the current school year. Absent new legislation, the board is required to renew its contract with PARCC or find a new vendor for the spring of 2018.

The state board broached dumping the politically contentious PARCC exam before the contract expires, but did not act.

The board’s motion to have the department find a new test for grades three through eight was approved 5-1. Vice chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, was the lone no vote. Democrat Jane Goff of Lakewood missed the morning vote.

Ninth-graders also take PARCC tests. That the board did not address ninth grade testing in its motion means it’s likely the state will look to better align that test with the existing 10th and 11th grade tests. This spring, high school sophomores will take the PSAT and juniors will take the SAT as their mandated tests.

Board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said the goal for the board was “to have a test that will serve the needs of Colorado students first.” He added: “The test we have now serves the needs of adults — it doesn’t serve the needs of students.”

Thursday’s action comes on the eve of a change in partisan control of the board. Democrats will have a majority on the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Durham said in an interview that the timing of the motion was not politically motivated and pointed out that Democrat Val Flores voted with the board’s four other Republicans.

Durham said “there are plenty of votes to sustain it” after Democrat Rebecca McClellan joins the board next year, replacing Republican Debora Scheffel.

Schroeder said she is in favor of shorter tests and results that are back sooner but opposed the motion because she wanted an additional parameter that would have ensured the state would be able to measure student academic growth.

Academic growth measures how much a student learns each year compared to their academic peers. That data point is the bedrock of the state’s accountability system that rates school and district quality.

“We need to be able to maintain growth,” she said. “You throw that out and we totally undo our accountability system.”

The state’s accountability system is only now turning back on after a one-year pause due to the state’s adoption of PARCC.

Unlike bubble tests of the past, the computer-based PARCC was heralded as interactive and capable of rewarding students for critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Supporters of the test promised lighting-fast results that would be comparable across state lines because for the first time multiple states took the same test.

But critics of the test, including several members on the state board, have said the tests take too long to administer and results are too slow to arrive to make meaningful changes at schools. Some also believe the tests aren’t grade-level appropriate, and that the federal incentives to join one of the two multi-state testing groups eroded local control. The number of states giving PARCC also has withered.

The charge to find a new test will likely be met with mixed reactions.

Many teachers, principals and superintendents — especially from smaller school districts — decried the burden they said it placed on schools. The tests, which are between eight and nine hours long, sometimes took weeks for schools to complete because of access to limited technology at some schools.

And the results have been slow to return to the state, which officials attributed to the extra work needed to get established. Under the state’s last testing system, the TCAP, schools had their results back typically by August. The first year of PARCC, school-level results were released in December. This year they were released in September.

Some found those hardships worth it because the tests, they believed, were academically challenging and a modern measure of student learning.

Others will be upset about yet another change to the state’s testing system. A new test in the spring of 2018 would be the state’s third different test in five years.

The nonprofit organization that produces the PARCC tests could still bid to administer Colorado’s tests. But it would need to also ensure the department will have decision-making authority over the test’s design and administration policies.

Schroeder said she believes PARCC could meet those requirements.

And Durham said he believed a testing company would step forward to meet Colorado’s tight deadline on tests results.

“It’s been my experience that when you have a multimillion dollar contract, people figure out how to bid it,” he said.

The state board is expected to consider what to do about the state’s ninth grade test at a later date.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the state board does not intend change the PSAT and SAT tests given at high school. 

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.”