Are Children Learning

Jeffco board reverses course on early-childhood assessment

The conservative majority of Jeffco Public Schools’ board of education on Thursday revised a previous decision to halt the district’s use of an early childhood education assessment linked to millions of dollars in preschool funding.

But it wasn’t a full retreat.

Jeffco receives more than $5 million from the Colorado Preschool Program to cover tuition for the suburb’s most at-risk students. The money is conditioned, in part, on the district assessing toddlers and providing that data to the state to measure the effectiveness of the program. The district is also required, under federal law governing free preschool children with disabilities, to assess their students.

The assessment under contention in Jeffco, TS GOLD, is one of two approved assessments that districts may use to send the state the information it requests. It requires preschool teachers to assess more than 30 different indicators of education readiness, capture data through pictures, video and work samples, and provide parents with an individualized learning plan for their students.

Critics fear the assessment is taking too much time from classroom instruction and have raised concerns over student privacy policies. Additionally, they argue that the mandate of assessing children — at any level — for state and federal purposes irks those who believe that decision is best left to local school boards and school leaders.

At its Dec. 12 meeting, the board halted the use of TS GOLD at the preschool level, putting in jeopardy the preschool funding. The December decision also ended the phasing-in of the assessment in kindergarten classrooms. (By the fall of 2015, all Colorado kindergarten classrooms will be required to use either TS GOLD or another assessment pending state approval.)

But after last night’s 3-2 vote, the district will continue to narrowly use the assessment as mandated. And the free preschool program for about 1,500 toddlers is safe. The board’s action last night did not reinstate the use of the program in kindergarten. It also required the district tp seek a waiver from the assessment.

“We’re simply dealing with a compliance concern that was raised,” said board president Ken Witt after the vote. “We’re going to pursue a waiver with the state that would imply, ‘I do not want to do this, but [we] feel we’re required to at this time.’”

The board’s minority — Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman — opposed both the original decision to end the use of TS GOLD and Thursday’s decision to reinstate it on a limited basis.

“The bottom line,” Dahlkemper said, “[is] no strings attached.”

She fears the board’s action is a slippery policy slope.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “Once you start going down the road of a waiver, it raises lots of red flags for me.”

Jefferson County parents were equally divided.

“Some families are worried about privacy,” said Darcy Wood, who attended the meeting flanked by a group of parents who support the district’s use of TS GOLD. “We respect their right to opt out of assessments as they see fit. But we’re in. We want our children’s learning, center stage. We want it accounted for — demonstrated, celebrated and used to move students forward.”

Wood said she believes the results of the assessments make classroom time more custom and informed.

“At another preschool, our children’s teachers feel it helps them plan activities and tells where children are developmentally,” she said. “They feel the work is worth the information they get fro their children.”

But Sunny Flynn, and another group of parents, fear data collection like TS GOLD could have dangerous repercussions.

“TS GOLD has a de facto monopoly,” Flynn said. “They’re creating a very powerful database. And before we move forward, our privacy policies need to catch up.”

Flynn was also concerned about classroom time being taken away while teachers “run around with an iPad” trying to collect a myriad of data.

“Our teachers need to be nurturing and teaching our kids,” she said. “Our children are not guinea pigs.”

Both sides of the argument did agree on one thing: regardless of the board’s decision, lawsuits are likely to follow.

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.