Testing Time

The new-look SAT is here, ushering in more changes to how Colorado tests kids

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

At STRIVE Excel, a northwest Denver charter high school, students Friday shuffled through the hallways in pajamas. Some wrapped themselves in cozy fleece blankets.

School leaders hoped this spirit day would send a message to juniors: Get plenty of rest this weekend. A big test is coming.

On Tuesday, 11th graders across Colorado for the first time will take the new-look SAT, which is replacing the ACT as the mandatory state test for that grade. The results, like those from the ACT in years past, will factor into the state’s accountability system for school and districts.

Following a nationwide trend in standardized testing, the updated SAT puts less emphasis on rote memorization — students won’t need to know the definition of “garrulous” or other infamous “SAT words” — and puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking. There are fewer questions and students will spend more time explaining their work.

The shift from the ACT to the SAT comes as the state continues to refine its testing system amid a public backlash against standardized tests. The results from those tests are used in part to rate the quality of each school.

“The SAT is really about college,” said Ben Lewis, the principal at STRIVE Excel principal. “It’s a much easier argument for kids than a complicated accountability system.”

Colorado’s adoption of the SAT is the byproduct of a 2015 legislative compromise forged during a months-long debate about testing.

The ACT had been a required test for 11th graders since 2011. In 2014, the state began requiring students in that grade to also take state PARCC tests in math and English.

The backlash — at least in some communities — was immediate. Thousands of students concentrated in high-performing, wealthy suburban districts and some rural areas skipped the PARCC tests in protest. That caused state lawmakers to reconsider how it tests in high school.

Legislation in 2015 eliminated PARCC for both 10th and 11th graders. After intense lobbying by The College Board, makers of the SAT, lawmakers also decided to open to competitive bidding the 10th and 11th grade testing that would remain.

A panel of educators commissioned by the state education department picked the PSAT for 10th graders and the SAT for 11th graders.

Those teachers and testing experts found the SAT better aligned to the state’s academic standards, which include the Common Core in math and English. The panel also felt the SAT offered more and cheaper resources to schools to help students prepare.

Some test prep materials are even free.

“We’ve never been able to budget a teacher to do test prep,” said Julie Knowles, assessment director for the Garfield School District in western Colorado, who was part of the panel that selected the SAT. “So the free resources have been a boon.”

Garfield’s two high schools have purchased additional SAT-aligned tests for lower grades to help track student progress. The two schools spent a combined $3,069, or $8.50 per student, for each test.

The decision to move to the PSAT and SAT in the spring of 2016 was announced just before Christmas in 2015. It sparked an outcry among school officials across the state.

School leaders, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull, said the timing of the decision was unacceptable: Schools had already been preparing students to take the ACT that spring.

As a compromise, the department agreed to hold off on moving to the SAT until 2017.

Cherry Creek had other cause for concern: Like some other school districts, it was already using companion tests, known as Aspire, published by the ACT to track student learning through multiple grades — and, ideally, setting students up for success on the ACT.

The local use of the Aspire tests, which the suburban Denver school district decided to maintain despite the shift to the SAT, helps maintain a long-term dataset amid changes in testing at the state level, said Judy Skupa, an assistant superintendent in Cherry Creek.

“With the volatility of the state assessment system, it was difficult to monitor students,” she said. “That’s why we went to an internal system. Our data won’t be subject to political winds.”

Policymakers aren’t done tinkering with the state’s testing system.

Lawmakers want to continue expanding the SAT’s reach in high school. If a bipartisan compromise becomes law this year, ninth graders would stop taking the PARCC test this year and begin taking a version of the PSAT next spring.

And because the state’s contract with PARCC is up this year, the state education department is seeking bids to find a new test for the state’s elementary and middle schools.

“There’s a lot of flux coming in the next several years,” said Garfield’s Knowles, adding that her parents trust the SAT, and as a result testing is up at her schools. “We don’t have to sell it. They see it as a gateway for kids who want to go to college. Even if they want to go on a vocational path.”

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.


Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come


But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.