testing test drive

State looks to create its own computer-based tests as officials put off switch to PARCC

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

New York students could take their annual state tests on computers in 2017, according to a state document seeking bids for a contract to create new electronic English and math exams.

The five-year contract would begin in July, months before the state’s current $32 million contract with the testmaker Pearson expires in December. While the winning bidder would be required to create computer-based exams by spring 2017, schools will have the option to stick with the pencil-and-paper exams that students currently take in grades three through eight, the document adds.

That move further delays New York’s shift from print to computer-based tests, suggesting that many schools are not ready for the change.

State officials had previously planned to roll out computer-based tests this year, when a group of states will begin giving online exams tied to the Common Core standards. Officials later decided to hold off switching to the exams created by that group, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

The state’s latest decision to develop its own computer-based tests indicates that officials have no immediate plans to adopt the PARCC exams, even as other states make the switch. Instead, schools will have several more years to prepare for New York’s own digital tests.

“It will be at the discretion of each school and revisable annually, as to whether they will administer by paper or computer or both,” according to the request for proposals posted by the state education department last week, which calls this a “voluntary shift.” It adds that the state does not know how many schools will initially switch to computer-based tests, but expects the number “will increase each school year of this contract,” which would extend to 2020.

New York has been planning to convert to computer-based tests since at least 2010, when it adopted the Common Core standards and joined PARCC. In 2012, State Education Commissioner John King told districts to prepare to give computer-based tests by 2015, when the consortium’s tests were to be ready. (PARCC received a $186 million federal grant to build the “next-generation” assessments, which the group hired Pearson to help develop.)

But the next year New York decided not to immediately switch to the PARCC tests, which will be available at first in both paper and online forms. The decision was partly because not all schools had the necessary technology or Internet bandwidth to give the online exams. But it was also because officials had paid Pearson to create a pencil-and-paper Common Core test just for New York, which students first took in 2013.

Now, as other states in the consortium take the online PARCC tests this year, New York students will continue taking the state’s printed Common Core test. State officials have not said if or when New York will adopt the PARCC tests, though one top official recently said the state has “no current plans” to use them. The state education department did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday.

New York City officials have expressed interest in converting to online exams ahead of the rest of the state. Last year, 95 city schools took trial versions of the PARCC tests.

Still, many schools do not have the necessary technology. Only a quarter of city schools currently have enough devices to administer the online test, officials said last April, and many of the devices schools do have are outdated. A city education department spokesman said Wednesday that a switch either to PARCC or the state’s own computer-based tests “will require a transition period of several years.”

Even as the state prepares to build its own new tests, it is still possible it could switch to PARCC eventually, said Jack Bierwirth, the superintendent of the Herricks school district on Long Island and co-chair of the Council of School Superintendents’ assessment subcommittee.

The state could relatively cheaply convert its current paper exams into computer-based versions that it could use temporarily, he said. That would give the state time to find a new education commissioner, wait to see if federal testing laws change, and then decide whether to adopt the PARCC tests, Bierwirth said.

“To me,” he said, “this all ends up being essentially a few years of an interim assessment while the dust settles.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.