Are Children Learning

State board chair drops a little PARCC surprise

Paul Lundeen, chair of the State Board of Education, informed his colleagues Tuesday that he plans to ask them to vote next month on a resolution calling on the legislature to repeal a 2012 law that required Colorado to sign up with a multistate testing group.

Lundeen’s surprise (at least to some board members) came at the end of a daylong meeting, “I respectfully call for action by the General Assembly and the governor during this legislative session,” he said. “It is time to demand action from the General Assembly to repeal the statute” that led to Colorado committing to use of language arts and math tests being prepared by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

He said he’d ask the board to consider such a resolution during its April 9-10 meeting.

Lundeen made the announcement near the end of a 10-minute speech in which he criticized the Common Core Standards (“Colorado must remain true to its independent standards”) as “an increasing burden of standardized assessments.”

The 2012 “PARCC law” (only 14 lines of text in an education laws cleanup bill) was controversial then because lawmakers – led by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver – basically forced the board to join the multistate testing group. Earlier that session lawmakers rejected the board’s request for $26 million to develop new Colorado-only tests.

Testing and the Common Core have become even more controversial since then.

The effect of a board resolution – if Lundeen gets one passed – might be minimal. The board historically doesn’t have a lot of sway with lawmakers, particularly when the board is divided, as it would be on this issue. Johnston would be expected to oppose any change in the state testing system. And lawmakers likely would be reluctant to take up such a controversial issue with less than a month to go in the session. (They have to adjourn by May 7.)

Lundeen, a Republican, is likely a short-timer on the board. He’s a candidate for the state House from a safely GOP seat in El Paso County and has been endorsed by the incumbent.

Testing also came in for criticism at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, when Keith King, a Republican former legislator from Colorado Springs, appeared before the board to complain about testing – “there are just really too many mandated tests” – and warn that new standardized tests are threatening the autonomy of charter schools. King, an influential figure on education issues while in the legislature, operates an early college charter.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board’s public comment session was taken up by the usual assortment of citizen witnesses complaining about or praising the Common Core. (This has become a fixture at board meetings since last summer.)

Sonja Semion, who heads Stand for Children Colorado, brought along a unique visual aid to show that group’s support for the standards – a printout containing more than 7,000 signatures from citizens who signed a Stand online petition supporting the standards.

Petition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.
PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Petition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.

pisa power

A surprising link: when kids work harder on tests, their countries’ economies grow more

American politicians often wring their hands over the country’s mediocre performance on international tests. New research finds one reason they’re right to worry: a country’s scores on one of those tests, known as PISA, do tend to mirror its economic growth.

That research also arrives at a more surprising finding — one that could add to the debate about the importance of teaching students “soft skills” in school.

Students’ ability to push through to the end of the test — their “stick-to-it-iveness,” if you will — was equally able to predict whether a country was on an upward economic climb, the study found.

Students in certain Northern European and Asian countries, for example, did nearly as well on questions toward the end of the test as they did on its early questions. The idea is that those students don’t give up easily, a technique that’s been used in previous studies to get at hard-to-measure skills like “grit” or perseverance.

In some cases, countries where students did similarly at the start of the test saw big differences in how quickly performance declined over the course of the exam.

On the 2006 PISA, the U.S. scored in the middle of the pack of nearly 60 countries in both overall performance and in students’ decline between the first question and the last.

Past studies have found that a country’s performance on international tests predicts future economic growth, but the latest study, published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, is among the first to try to quantify the impact of these harder-to-measure traits.

“Both the starting performance and the performance decline are positively and significantly associated with economic growth,” the researchers write.

Worth noting: the U.S. has been an outlier in the past when it comes to PISA. Our economic growth has outpaced other countries’ with similar scores.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.