united in orange but not on bill

State Board splits over testing and standards delay

State Board of Education members — who work hard to bridge partisan and philosophical divisions — fractured dramatically Friday over a new bill that proposes to delay implementation of state academic content standards and new tests.

During the legislative session the board meets regularly to consider taking positions on bills. Top of the agenda Friday was Senate Bill 14-136, which was introduced last Monday by several Republican legislators (see this story for details).

The discussion accelerated quickly after a briefing by Jennifer Mello, board and Department of Education lobbyist.

Noting that state content standards (adopted in 2009) already are being rolled out in school districts, Democratic member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver said, “I don’t know that we can support it when the standards are being implemented. It’s totally inconsistent with the work the department has done and is doing.”

Marcia Neal, a Grand Junction Republican, weighed in to say, “I have very little patience with this bill. We all know it is not going to pass. Why are we being dragged through this?”

She added that the bill seems “designed to make Republicans look bad.” Neal participated via speakerphone, as did three other members, giving the meeting an occasionally disjointed feel.

But Republican board chair Paul Lundeen of Monument, also on speakerphone, defended the bill, saying that public conversation only now is “catching up” with the issues of standards and testing. “Sometimes the fastest way to make progress is to turn around,” he said, adding the bill is “appropriate, in my opinion.”

Neal asked, “Are you taking this bill seriously?” to which Lundeen said, “This may be the first step in a long journey.”

Republican member Deb Scheffel of Parker described ideas behind the bill as “a grassroots effort on the part of parents … this bill addresses part of that concern.” Pam Mazanec, a Republican member from Larkspur, agreed, saying, “This bill is a response to a growing concern … and I don’t see anything ridiculous about it.”

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder said SB 14-136 would undo the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which mandated new standards, new tests and better alignment of K-12 and higher education. “I don’t think our education system can stand the kind of change” that would be forced by moratoria on standards and testing.

Neal moved that the board take a “monitoring” position on the bill – taking no position. Berman, Schroeder and Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada supported the motion, while Lundeen, Scheffel and Mazanec voted no. (Neal said later she neither supports nor opposes the bill at this point.)

“The motion carries. We’ll monitor this bill,” Lundeen said, ending the discussion.

The board also had a split 5-2 vote on support of House Bill 14-1182, a measure that would tinker slightly with annual state ratings of districts and schools for one year during the transition between old and new tests (details in this story).

The bill wouldn’t affect possible board interventions in struggling districts that have reached the end of the five-year “accountability clock.” Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said failure to pass the bill would mean such districts “basically get a hold harmless year.”

Lundeen said, “I’ve got a little bit of heartburn with this” without elaborating, and he and Scheffel voted against the motion to support the bill.

Not on the board’s agenda was House Bill 14-1202, a measure introduced Thursday that would allow school districts to waive out of some state testing requirements. It’s backed by the Douglas County school board (see story here).

Testing will be on the board’s agenda later this month, when it’s scheduled to hold a study session on the topic.

Hammond also told Chalkbeat Colorado earlier this week that CDE is working with WestEd, an education consulting organization, to study the implementation of new Colorado tests both this school year and next.

The intent is to “really study the intended and unintended consequences,” said Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley. The research will include surveys of districts and focus groups.

During the interview both Hammond and Hawley noted that implementation of standards and tests is required by state law and that testing and student growth data are the foundation of the state’s performance rating system for schools and districts and an important part of teacher evaluations.

“There’s not a way to go back in time,” Hawley said. “Our duty and our obligation is to carry forward with” helping districts implement the law.

Board members, who are elected from congressional districts, represent a spectrum of educational views in addition to their partisan differences. Anxious to increase the body’s influence on education policy, members have worked hard to bridge differences and present a united front in recent years.

But that unity appeared to crack a bit on Friday.

At one point, Berman (in the board room) said to Lundeen (on the phone), “I personally think, Paul, that you are making a strong political statement and are being very partisan. … If this board is to be taken seriously … you are not the leader helping us get there.”

Lundeen said, “I do seek board unity” but encourage “robust, open and wide-ranging conversation.” He said standards and testing are not partisan issues for the general public.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.