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.

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”

overruled

Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”