waive goodbye

Tisch: I’d ‘think twice’ before opting into state testing if I had a special-needs child

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

New York’s top education official, who sharply criticized parents who might keep their children from taking state tests a few months ago, offered a different message for parents of some students with special needs on Monday.

“Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in Albany.

Tisch’s remarks came after federal education officials rejected New York’s request to loosen testing requirements for some high-needs students in June. The waiver would have exempted English language learners who have attended U.S. schools for less than two years from taking the tests, and assessed students with severe disabilities based on their instructional level, rather than their age-based grade.

Tisch has never disagreed with critics who say testing requirements for certain high-needs students are unfair, though she also hadn’t before suggested that opting students out was the right response. The solution, she said, would come through the state’s test-exemption request.

But the Obama administration’s denial means state education officials won’t be able to ease testing anxiety for those students and parents as they thought they might be able to. It also represents a roadblock in their efforts to reduce the general opposition to state tests that has steadily grown over the last few years.

Anti-testing advocates have estimated that upwards of 200,000 New York students, or roughly 20 percent of test-takers, did not take the state English and math exams this year — more than double the number who opted out in 2014. (That share is considerably smaller in New York City.) Their parents say it is a form of activism against policies that has led to a narrowing of the focus of teaching and an overemphasis on tests.

Seeking to discourage more parents from joining in, Tisch said in March that parents who opted out of the 2015 tests were making a “terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.”

In the months since, the state has appointed a new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, and ended its main contract with Pearson, the test-maker that had become a target of the opt-out movement. Elia also announced on Monday that she was planning a full review of the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards and its testing policies (a move also required by law).

The U.S. Department of Education did approve many of New York’s requests for flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to annually test students in grades three through eight in math and English. The state is now making small changes to how it identifies struggling schools as a result, and will require more intensive intervention for schools that are re-identified as low-performing based on academic and achievement data from the last school year.

But its request to exempt certain high-need students from some testing requirements was denied. Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote that the current testing requirements were necessary to ensure that academic progress of all students is properly tracked.

The federal education department did grant a waiver to Florida that would have allowed the test scores of certain high-need students to be withheld from the state’s school-accountability calculations. New York’s request would have actually exempted some students from the tests altogether.

For now, state officials say they have few options to reduce testing for those students.

Both houses of Congress are moving to change federal education law. The law was overhauled in 2002 by George W. Bush, and its standardized testing requirements and their stringent use for accountability purposes are among its least popular provisions. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democrat-controlled Senate have advanced different versions of the law, which must ultimately get approval from President Obama.

Ira Schwartz, New York’s deputy education commissioner, said that neither version includes specific flexibility for high-needs students that they have been seeking.

Regent Roger Tilles asked if a lawsuit was possible, but state education officials said a similar, unsuccessful case in Connecticut meant that the chances of winning were grim. Tilles then said officials “should figure out a way to lodge a protest.”

“We thought that there were ways indicating that students were not up to their grade level without making them take a test that everybody knows they’re going to fail,” said Tilles.

“This would be the appropriate time to lodge that,” Schwartz responded.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

legislative update

GOP plan to appoint Indiana’s schools chief claws its way back to a win in Senate panel

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

Indiana Republicans are pulling out all the stops to make sure the state schools chief would be appointed, not elected, in the future.

The Senate Rules Committee passed and amended a bill on Monday that would change how the state’s top education official is selected, giving new life to a measure that GOP leaders say has been debated in Indiana for 45 years — and is one of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2017 legislative priorities.

“It’s been advocated by every governor since 1985,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author. “It’s been advocated by both parties, in fact.”

Supporters of the measure say it’s finally time to align efforts between the state’s top executive and education official, reducing the possibility for political squabbles that have marred previous administrations. Opponents argue the change disenfranchises voters, taking away their chance to have a voice in the direction of the state’s education policy.

The amended House Bill 1005 includes two major changes from an earlier version debated last month. It would allow the governor to appoint a “secretary of education” beginning in 2025, a change from the originally proposed 2021 start date.

That seemingly small change could be a point of contention as the bill moves forward. With the 2021 start date, Holcomb, a Republican, would make the appointment if elected to a second term. Pushing it four years farther puts the first appointment out of Holcomb’s — and potentially GOP — control.

Additionally, a 2025 start date would allow current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, also a Republican, to run for a second term in 2020 before a possible replacement would be appointed.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

The new bill also introduces qualifications for the position. In addition to living in Indiana for at least two years prior to an appointment, the secretary of education candidate would also be required to:

  • Demonstrate “personal and professional leadership success, preferably in the administration of public education.”
  • Have an advanced degree, preferably in education or educational administration.
  • Hold, or have previously held, a license to be a teacher, principal of superintendent, or otherwise be employed as such for at least five years before taking office.
  • Have five years of working experience as an executive in the education field.

Senate President David Long, chairman of the committee, said these changes to the bill make it “substantially” different from Senate Bill 179, a similar proposal that was defeated by the Senate 26-23 last month. According to Senate rules, another bill with the same language could not be considered unless significant changes were made.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he believed the Senate violated its own rules by even having a hearing on the House bill. Senate rules state that if a bill has had a majority of senators vote against it, it is “decisively defeated,” and similar language cannot be considered again that year.

“It does not say it shall not be voted on, it says it shall not be considered,” Lanane said. “It pays respect to the idea in the Indiana Senate that we don’t do do-overs.”

But Republicans on the committee disagreed, and said their amendment means the bill can proceed.

Now, a few concerns remain as the bill heads to the full Senate.

First, Indiana’s constitution says that there “shall be a State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” not a secretary of education. Bosma said he doesn’t think that’s a problem because the bill’s language allows for the change.

And second, if the Senate passes the bill, it heads to conference committee, where lawmakers come together to try to reconcile differences over bills. Democrats on the rules committee said they were worried that parts of the original bill — no specific qualifications for candidates, a 2021 start date — might resurface at that point.

Long reassured the committee that only minor changes could be made. But Bosma was less decisive on that point, which might indicate that the closed-door dealings on this bill could be particularly contentious.

Bosma has said all along that he’s waited years for this proposal to become a reality, and he sees no point in waiting any longer.

“Maybe we should wait another 40 years from when this was first proposed,” he joked. “The time is right.”