testing testing

Proposed bill that has governor’s blessing would drop PARCC from Colorado high schools

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

Colorado high school freshmen no longer would be required to take the state’s controversial standardized English and math tests under a bipartisan bill that has the governor’s support.

The state House Education Committee gave its unanimous approval Monday to legislation that would eliminate PARCC tests for freshmen, replacing them with tests that measure mastery of those subjects and line up with exams sophomores and juniors take now.

As part of broad reforms to the state’s testing system in 2015, lawmakers dropped PARCC testing for sophomores and juniors. Sophomores began taking the PSAT last year, and juniors will be required to take the SAT for the first time this spring.

The legislation —House Bill 1181 — would reduce the number of testing hours from about nine to two-and-a-half. It would also save the state about $650,000, according to a legislative budget analysis.

Sponsors and supporters of the bill believe the link to college and a recognizable brand such as the SAT would restore trust with families and students.

“This relevancy will provide students with motivation to take the test and do well on it,” Emily Richardson, director of government affairs for the STRIVE Prep charter network in Denver, told the House committee.

Monday’s committee hearing was the bill’s first legislative test and it faces several more hurdles to become law.

The legislation, sponsored by state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Paul Lundeen, grew out of years of work on testing that began with a committee studying the state’s testing system in 2014.

Since then, ninth-grade testing has been a sticking point in the testing reform debate. Lawmakers in both parties have tried to eliminate the testing mandate or make the test optional. But Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has promised to veto any bill that would do so.

“This is a piece of legislation that I think we can actually pass and make a meaningful change,” Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said. “That’s important in this building.”

Three other bills have been introduced this year to either eliminate or make ninth grade testing optional. Two of those bills were killed by the House committee Monday. A Senate committee is scheduled to consider the third later this week.

State Rep. Tim Leonard, an Evergreen Republican, is one of those lawmakers who wants to eliminate ninth grade testing altogether.

“Even the federal government recognizes the amount of standardized testing we do in the United States and Colorado goes too far,” Leonard said.

Federal law requires that students in grades three through eight be tested every year in English and math. States are also required to test students on those subjects at least once in high school. Under the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states may use the ACT or SAT to meet that requirement.

The Colorado PTA spoke in favor of all three bills that would reduce testing time, but the group said it favored rolling back to the federal minimum the most. Leonard’s bill would align Colorado’s system to the federal minimum.

“If everyone would just follow the federal minimum, we believe that students would be very willing to take those tests,” said former state Sen. Evie Hudak, the PTA’s legislative committee chairwoman.

There is evidence that shifting the entire high school testing system to a set of college entrance exams such as the SAT could turn the tide in students opting out in large numbers.

Lawmakers in 2015 eliminated PARCC testing in the 10th grade. Sophomores last spring took for the first time the PSAT, which is part of the SAT family, as their state-mandated test. Statewide participation rate for 10th graders jumped by 27 percentage points to 88 percent.

Only 73 percent of ninth graders took the 2016 PARCC tests.

Colorado has been an epicenter for the nationwide movement to opt students out of standardized tests. Critics generally argue that students spend too much time testing and believe the multi-state testing group PARCC is federal overreach.

The Obama administration incentivized states to adopt the Common Core State Standards in math and English and join a multistate testing group like PARCC, but did not mandate it.

Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said he favors using a college entrance-aligned test in ninth grade because it would move the state one step closer away from PARCC, a test he’s opposed since he served on the State Board of Education.

“This bill makes the ninth grade test meaningful,” he said. “It changes something that many see as a burden into an advantage.”

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.