Are Children Learning

In northeast Colorado, a collaborative response to new standards

On a windy Monday last month, the main school campus in the small northeastern town of Haxtun quietly buzzed. Teachers walked the hallways heads together and deep in discussion. Lunch time was a rush of moving bodies.

In one long day, first grade teachers from northeast Colorado, fueled by soda and candy, crafted math assessments for the entire school year.
In one long day, fueled by soda and candy, first grade teachers from northeast Colorado crafted math assessments for the entire school year.

But there were no students in sight. On this day, the teachers were the students and the instructors.

Teachers from ten rural districts in northeastern Colorado gathered in Haxtun, just 30 miles from the Nebraska border, to figure out how to translate the mandates of the Common Core to their classrooms.

The Common Core State Standards, a shared set of expectations about what students are supposed to know, are being rolled out across the state this year, and districts are finding implementation challenging.

The ten districts these teachers came from face an even bigger hurdle, as none had curriculum specialists and only one had any kind of written curriculum at all. Instead, teachers used textbooks to guide their instruction. Each classroom went at its own pace and even taught different material. The differences between districts were even greater.

So the group of districts decided to adopt the sample Common Core curriculum written by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and collaborate on training to teachers to use it.

All ten districts are members of the Northeast Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a regional consortium that coordinates shared services, including professional development and distance learning. The Northeast BOCES, which also includes two districts who are not participating, helps to coordinate this curriculum collaborative.

So every month, teachers and school administrators gather in Haxtun to familiarize themselves with the curriculum, write assessments and agree on grading standards.

Writing the tests

The collaborative had to pick a starting point for curriculum training, so this fall the focus is math. Teachers in subjects other than math team up to work on their own area.

During this session, the expectation was that all groups would create the first test that they’ll give to their students based on the new curriculum. Teachers worked to write test questions that are aligned to the new standards and difficult enough to challenge students.

In a classroom of first grade instructors, a table of teachers worked on a unit on measuring and telling time.

One teacher suggested that students measure objects found in their desks. “Pick an object shorter than this pencil and longer than my thumb” was one possible instruction. But the logistics of how that would work under testing conditions got more complicated.

“How much do we want them digging in their desks?” said one of her table mates. They agreed to have students take the object out before testing started.

The group also stalled over the wording of a question about students’ ability to tell time. The question asked students when they got up for school. Then students had to construct a clock, fill in the hands to show their wake-up time and finally write that time on a digital clock (see the example assessment for similar questions).

“But what if it says 2 p.m.?” said one teacher. She said students might not know what time they got up or write when they want to get up.

“As long as the two answers match, it’s fine,” said Susan Rogers, the first grade teacher for Wray school district.

By 2:30 p.m., when the workshop ended, the first grade teachers had three new assessments to take back to their classrooms.

“If you lose that test, you’re walking home,” one Holyoke teacher said to her colleague, who had the master copy of their newly minted assessment.

Teachers said that the new standards presented a challenge for them, but that they thought the extra work was worth it.

“We’re free to teach it the way we want to teach it, but it’s good to know what the bottom line is,” said Kristie Pelle, a Holyoke first grade teacher. She said, especially in math, she has already seen benefits for her students.

“I felt like math was one of the things [where] we needed to change curriculum,” said Pelle.

She also anticipated that the change will smooth the transitions between grades. “When my first graders go to second grade, [the teachers] know where to pickup, they know where [the students] left off.”

Beyond the core

Teachers in all subjects gathered for the training, including those not traditionally covered by testing. Since Monday was about assessments, figuring out how to apply the Common Core standards to grading outside of traditionally tested areas required creativity on the part of teachers.

In the group for arts curriculum, the teachers designing a curriculum to assess fifth grade art projects found themselves balancing the need for clear grading protocols and the desire to encourage creativity.

“Do we give it to the fifth graders?” asked another teacher. “I would not want to hand this to students and say welcome to fifth grade art.” No, they agreed, they would use a different ones for students to grade themselves.

The challenges of grading art projects was not lost on them. They struggled to find a balance of rewarding creativity and encouraging clarity.

“Does a spider have four or eight legs?” Rhonda Mehring-Smith, Holyoke’s art teacher, suggested for the kind of benchmark she would use for students.

She said she thinks there are still ways to encourage kids to use their imagination. “I intentionally never put up an example because then they just copy it instead of being creative.”

Scheduling conflicts

The process leading up to this day of work has not been simple. Getting districts and teachers used to going their own way on the same path was difficult.

“As part of this consortium, [the districts] all had to get on the same path,” said Tim Sanger, the executive director of Northeast BOCES. One district left the collaborative because there wasn’t consensus among staff members.

The ten districts had to create a common calendar in order for all teachers to attend the trainings. The calendar, which included shared school breaks and TCAP testing windows, required uniting school districts who feel their local control has faded.

“That was the hardest thing,” said Sanger. He said schools had very different academic calendars, even down to how many days a week students were in school. Several school districts had four day school weeks. Another, Holyoke school district, hadn’t had spring break in years.

All these changes require considerable district support, which means that superintendents had to do a bit of marketing for the project.

“Superintendents going back to their staff and selling it is a huge piece,” said Sanger. But, he said, the results have been good. “Seventeen years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The end of the day

By the end of the day, according to Miles, all of the groups completed at least one assessment and many had finished the entire math curriculum.

That meant the collaborative was a month ahead of their target and groups had time to work on other projects and even just chat. A group of kindergarten teachers, who rarely see each other, spent the afternoon sharing war stories and discussing how they manage their classrooms.

That collaborative spirit didn’t surprise Sanger. Rural districts, he said, work differently than urban ones.

“We’re a different animal, so to speak,” said Sanger. “We have to share more resources, we have to network more.”

The assessments teachers build this year will be used in classrooms right away but the collaborative will continue. Both teachers and administrators agree it will take more than a year to see results.

“Kids have gone through curriculum with different expectations,” said Carly Daniel, a first grade teacher at Holyoke School District. “So it’ll take some backfill.”

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.