Upon further review

Westminster schools didn’t improve enough to dodge sanctions, state finds

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

State officials have denied Westminster Public Schools’ plea to reconsider the district’s performance rating, putting the district one step closer to facing consequences for low performance.

Colorado Department of Education staff presented the final ratings to the state Board of Education Thursday. The state notified district officials earlier this week that the evidence they had presented to request a higher rating included good data, but was insufficient.

“Though some of the data provided showed some progress and promise over the past five years, comprehensively the data did not present a compelling case of performance that warrants a higher accreditation rating,” state officials wrote in a letter to the district this week.

As it stands, the rating means Westminster Public Schools is one of five districts that will face state sanctions in the coming months after five low performance ratings from the state. This group of districts would be the first to face sanctions under the state’s accountability system.

Westminster officials say they plan to appeal the state’s decision.

“We are disappointed by the decision and will be vigorously following all avenues available to us,” said Pam Swanson, Westminster schools superintendent. “We don’t think the Colorado Department of Education fully considered or responded to all of the information that was submitted in our request for reconsideration. Importantly, the decision doesn’t reflect the fact that none of our schools face sanctions.”

The district had requested that the state reconsider its most recent rating in part because the district has been working on switching the 9,500-student district to a competency-based model. Under the model, the district did away with placements based only on age and instead groups students by what they know. The approach also requires students to prove they’ve mastered certain competencies before passing onto the next level.

Westminster officials worry that because students must be grouped by age for state tests, the accountability system might not be fairly evaluating their progress. The district presented data from its own internal tests and from a review by a third-party they hired to assess the model.

The data, especially from 2010 through 2014, showed positive trends, the state agreed. But in 2016, state officials pointed out that several schools saw a decline.

The state also took time in the letter to address some of the district’s concerns with the accountability system, countering some statements made by Westminster officials, including on how often the standards have changed in the last several years. The state standards have “evolved,” officials stated in the letter, but districts were given years to make the transition.

Specifically addressing the district’s competency based system, state officials noted at several points that there may be more to learn from the system and how it works with the state’s testing.

“The department recognizes that the district has been working to implement a Competency Based System,” the letter to the district states. “Your input around assessment options has been shared and is being considered. But we welcome further conversation.”

Take Two

One year after TNReady collapse, Tennessee unveils plan to test online again

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

After last year’s mostly failed transition to online testing, Tennessee will try again next year. And this time, state officials say they “feel confident” that the new online platform will work.

But unlike last year, the state will stagger the transition. All high schools will administer the test online in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the state’s test on paper to its youngest students.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the new game plan for TNReady testing on Thursday after sharing the timeline with superintendents the day before.

“Given the challenges we experienced last year, we took a step back this year and have worked very closely with our vendor, Questar, to create an online product that is right for Tennessee,” McQueen wrote to superintendents. “We are proud of the progress that has been made and feel confident in the strength of the Nextera platform.”

Many districts are expected to get a head start and use the option to administer the high school test this spring. McQueen reported that more than half of the state’s high schools participated in online practice tests last fall, and that feedback was “generally very positive.”

Districts have until Feb. 15 to decide whether to take this year’s test online, and testing will start on April 17.

McQueen has said repeatedly that Tennessee is committed to transitioning to online testing, even after its platform collapsed last year on the first day of testing. The test maker later acknowledged that its platform did not have enough servers for the volume of students online as most of the state tried to make the shift for all grades.

The commissioner reiterated the state’s commitment this week. “It is our responsibility to ensure Tennessee students are prepared to meet the demands of postsecondary and the workforce, and online readiness is a part of that effort,” she wrote. “… Online is the future for our students.”

However, McQueen said that the transition plan isn’t set in stone.

We will continue to look at proof points along the way to be sure we are setting up districts and schools for success using the online platform,” she wrote.

Last year’s failed online rollout was followed by the test maker’s inability to deliver printed test materials, prompting McQueen to cancel tests for grades 3-8 and fire North Carolina-based Measurement Inc.

This year’s test has several differences from 2016:

  • It was designed by Questar, a Minnesota-based testing company that Tennessee hired last July;
  • It will take place during a single testing window, in April 17 to May 5, rather than also having testing in February.
  • It will be slightly shorter, with shorter sections.

breaking

‘ILEARN’ test would replace ISTEP in 2019 under House GOP plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A key Republican lawmaker is calling for Indiana’s next state test to be known as “ILEARN,” finally abolishing the hated ISTEP in time for the 2018-19 school year.

But the new test, should the plan move forward and become law, might not look that different to students and teachers.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, filed House Bill 1003 in the Indiana General Assembly Wednesday setting out details for a new state testing system, whose name stands for “Indiana’s Learning Evaluation Assessment Readiness Network.” Behning championed the so-called “kill ISTEP” bill last spring, which came out of complaints about the test’s history of scoring glitches and delays.

Behning’s bill is the first to outline a plan to replace the test, and it still faces a number of legislative hurdles. But as House Education Committee chairman, Behning has considerable influence.

“ILEARN” would be similar to recommendations released late last year by a committee of lawmakers and educators charged with helping create a new test. That committee called for mostly tweaks to the ISTEP testing system, not an overhaul as some educators had favored.

His plan would include a few changes. In addition to continuing to test students in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school in math and English, the bill would require Indiana schools to give high school students a “nationally recognized” college or career readiness test. That test could be an exam for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, a college entrance exam, or another test approved by the Indiana State Board of Education.

The bill would also have the state exams given in one testing period at the end of the year, rather than the current two periods in late winter and spring.

In order to graduate, the state would go back to requiring high school students to pass end-of-course assessments in English, Algebra I and science, not a 10th-grade test like what the state introduced in 2016.

Tests in social studies would also no longer be required.

The bill would also require that scores be returned to the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1 of the year the test was given. It also says the Indiana Department of Education would be able to make rules that encourage Indiana teachers to grade the writing questions.

Originally, Behning called for ISTEP to formally end after it was given in 2017, but because of the challenges of creating a new test in such a short time window, he and fellow Republicans in the Senate have said the current ISTEP needs to stick around for another year or so. His plan would have ILEARN given for the first time in 2019.

Below, find some of our top stories over the past year on the ever-changing exam, where we explain how Indiana got to this point. You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.