Common Core in spotlight

Senate Education kills standards and testing timeout

The wide range of hopes and fears about academic standards and coming online tests were more than fully aired Thursday for the Senate Education Committee, which concluded its 6 1/2-hour meeting by voting 4-3 to kill Senate Bill 14-136.

The measure, drafted by concerned parents and sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, would have delayed by a year implementation of new online state tests, created a task force to review the Colorado Academic Standards (including the Common Core) and required the Department of Education to study the costs of implementing the standards and tests.

The hearing capped two days of events and lobbying at the Capitol that focused attention on issues that previously haven’t been as high profile in Colorado as in other states.

Defeat of the bill was expected, given that key Democratic legislators, state education officials and both mainline and reform advocacy groups generally have been supportive of Colorado’s program of new standards, tests and other education changes, which was launched in 2008 and still is being implemented.

The discussion, as chair Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, noted, was “very respectful.” That tone continued as members made their final comments before voting. All four Democrats voted to kill the bill.

“I heard a lot of things today that give me lots of things to think about,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, perhaps the legislature’s leading proponent of the standard education reform agenda. “I don’t think the answer is to pause on this.”

Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, a bit choked up, said she sympathized with concerns about over-testing but that “it’s a difficult thing” to put Colorado’s system on hold. “There will be discussions that will continue.”

The hearing, with long lists of witnesses organized by both sides (more than 40 total), spotlighted the variety of fears and criticisms that have been sparked by the Common Core standards and by the prospect of new online tests aligned to those standards. Some witnesses were emotional, and one broke into tears while speaking to the committee.

Bill supporters raise many fears

Marble previewed the arguments of bill supporters, saying, “This bill was not written by me, this bill was written by moms very concerned about the Common Core standards and the implementation of testing.”

Later in the hearing, Marble said that what she hears from parents is that “It’s the camel’s nose under the tent. … This is the first brick in the foundation to help the fed government take over our schools.”

Witnesses testifying for the bill raised worries about everything from too much testing, perceived loss of local control, one-size-fits-all instruction, lack of parent voice in the process, obscene textbooks and made multiple references to the supposedly sinister designs of Bill Gates.

“I’m a mother and a nurse and I’m really angry,” said Anita Stapleton of Pueblo in opening her remarks. Stapleton has been very active in the anti-Common Core movement.

“I truly speak for hundreds of educators and parents who are desperately trying to have their voices heard,’’ said Lis Richards, principal at Monument Charter Academy. “We will not align to those standards. … We’re not going to dip our colors for the Common Core Standards.”

Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins parent active in drafting the bill, said testing “is taking away so much classroom time.”

And Sunny Flynn, a Jefferson County parent, complained about “big business, big government and big data” and added, “It is time for Colorado to decide if the move to centralized education is good for our state.”

Stephanie Pico, who said she works as a computer technician in the Cherry Creek schools, said she feels schools and students in that district aren’t ready for online tests, saying, “It would be wise to press the pause button.”

Bill opponents try to stress the positive

Platte Canyon physical education teacher Elizabeth Miner said the Colorado Academic tandards “reflect real world skills and knowledge [and] were created by the best and brightest teachers.” Miner is 2014 Colorado Teacher of Year.

MiDian Holmes, with Stand for Children Colorado, said, “These standards are the next step in bringing quality education” to all students, including minorities.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said, “Our teachers and students are drowning in testing” but said the teachers union still opposes SB 14-136. “We believe these standards are an issue of equity.” Dallman also complained about “the lack of resources in our eductin system right now.”

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said passing the bill “would halt the progress being made on our robust education system in Colorado. … Every year many kids in our system are falling behind. Students keep waiting for adults to become more comfortable with well-vetted change.”

The debate is expected to continue in a new forum on Monday, when the House Education Committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 14-1202, which would allow individual districts to opt out of state tests.

Roll call: Voting for the bill were Republican Sens. Marble, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker. Voting against were Democrats Johnston, Kerr, Todd and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. The votes reversed on the motion to postpone the bill indefinitely.

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

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.