Put to the test

Hickenlooper stands firm on testing ninth-graders, but which test will they take?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to reporters on the eve of the 2017 General Assembly.

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday reasserted his support for continuing standardized testing in the ninth grade but did not indicate whether he would support dropping the existing tests to better align with those given to other high school students.

In comments to reporters previewing his legislative priorities, Hickenlooper was non-committal on another education issue expected to get attention this session — whether the state’s teacher licensing system needs revamping.

Two years ago, a group of lawmakers from both parties sought to eliminate ninth-grade tests as part of legislation to reform and reduce the state’s standardized testing. Hickenlooper, however, made clear he valued the tests. With a potential veto looming, both chambers passed testing legislation with ninth-grade testing intact — and Hickenlooper signed it into law.

As a result, the state’s ninth graders are still required to take the state’s English and math test, known as PARCC. Students in grades three through eight also take PARCC tests, which have been a target of testing critics.

The testing reforms of 2015 did eliminate PARCC testing for high school sophomores and juniors. Sophomores began taking the PSAT last year, and juniors will take the SAT as their mandatory test for the first time this year.

With eliminating ninth-grade testing altogether no longer being discussed, the discussion has now shifted to potential legislation that would that would bring all the high school tests into alignment. That could result in freshmen also taking a test tied to the SAT, if that testing product continues to be the state’s choice.

While Hickenlooper on Tuesday did not take a position on switching tests, he did underscore that he believes testing in ninth grade provides a crucial datapoint for parents and the public.

“We have a responsibility to be able to talk to our taxpayers and tell them whether they’re getting the best value for their dollar,” said the Democratic governor, whose son is in ninth grade this year. “That requires a certain level of testing … If you take it out, I think we fall behind.”

Lawmakers and political observers also are expecting a series of bills that would reform the way the state license its teachers — an issue Hickenlooper has taken on in the past with little success.

In 2013, Hickenlooper and then-state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat, created a committee to make recommendations on how to change the state’s licensure process. But the committee’s work never led to legislation.

Hickenlooper said Tuesday he thought the conversation should be focused more on teacher preparation than licensing.

“If you go and look at the schools that really do educate a large number of our teachers, they want to educate great teachers,” he said. “So they’re open and willing to modify their curriculum and their teacher profiles to try and create better teachers. And I think they are.”

Hickenlooper, who has two years left in office before term limits end his governorship, is expected to lay out his legislative agenda Thursday when he addresses the General Assembly. Funding for education and transportation are expected to be key debates during this year’s legislative session.

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

getting to know you

Colorado Sen. Nancy Todd is making up for all the times she was quiet in school

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Throughout the legislative session, Chalkbeat is asking members of the House and Senate education committees to share a little bit about themselves — and their legislative priorities. In this installment, meet Sen. Nancy Todd.

Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, is a former social studies teacher who has spent her retirement — if you want to call it that — at the Capitol helping shape education policy.

Since 2005, Todd has played a role supporting — and opposing — some of the state’s most ambitious education policies as a member of both the state House and Senate.

One of her earlier bills created a stipend for teachers who earned National Board certification, a rigorous and widely respected training program for educators. More recently, Todd has been focused on reducing standardized testing and curbing the state’s teacher shortage.

Todd was a vocal opponent of Senate Bill 191, the state’s controversial 2010 teacher evaluation law. She has regularly supported reversing provisions of the law, including a failed attempt this year to create more flexibility in how student data is used to evaluate teachers.

Get to know a little more about Todd here:

What is your favorite memory from school?

PHOTO: Nancy Todd
State Sen. Todd in the first grade.

I think one of my favorite memories was my fifth grade teacher. He was my first male teacher, and he inspired me to be creative and think outside the box. Being the daughter of a superintendent, I always appreciated those teachers who treated me as an individual, not their “boss’s daughter.”

Were you the teacher’s pet or class clown?
Neither. I was actually pretty quiet and followed the rules. Guess I’m making up for it now.

What was your favorite subject and why?
I loved American Government because I had a great teacher who was unconventional and allowed different views and lively discussions. He taught me a lot about respecting others’ opinions and how different leaders of our country were all instrumental in doing good for our citizens, using different approaches.

If you could give yourself one high school superlative it would be:
I was considered “Miss Priss” because I didn’t wear jeans like some of my friends did. I was kidded for being “prim and proper.”

What clubs or sports did you participate in high school?
Pep club, journalism, Quill & Scroll, girls sports

What would your perfect school look like?
An ideal school is where there is a high level of innovation, creativity, opportunity for teachers and students to interact with authentic and respectful relationships. Where learning is based on relevant learning environment and a balance of technology, live role models teachers who are highly qualified and LOVE working with students.

What are you legislative priorities?
Resolve ninth-grade testing question; expand counseling; reasonable school finance proposal.