Politics of testing

Testing issue coming back to the boil

The waning days of the 2014 legislative session may see a Democratic-sponsored bill to cut back on statewide testing.

Sen. Andy Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee, confirmed to Chalkbeat Colorado Thursday that he is working on a late bill that would roll back the currently scheduled expansion of testing in high school and also trim the frequency of social studies tests, which launched just this year.

Kerr said he has permission to offer a late bill and is working with interest groups and other lawmakers on the details of the bill. The clock is ticking louder every day, as lawmakers have to adjourn no later than May 7.

The Lakewood Democrat said he doesn’t want to jeopardize either federal funding or disrupt the state’s accountability system, but that teachers and parents have made it clear that testing is a problem, and the legislature needs to respond. Kerr said he has permission from legislative leaders to introduce a late bill.

News of Kerr’s plan surfaced on the same day that Senate Education voted 7-0 for a bill that would create a task force to study the state testing system, including such touchy issues as testing costs and the feasibility of testing waivers and parental opting out.

The hearing on that bill today had a distinctly political undertone, as witnesses critical of the state assessment system repeatedly hinted to committee members that testing would be an issue for voters in November legislative elections.

Rising parent concern about testing could be an issue for Democrats who are running in swing suburban districts – like Kerr.

Several witnesses made a point of identifying themselves as registered Democrats before they launching into their testimony to the Democratic-majority committee.

A large group of witnesses represented the activist group Speak for Cherry Creek, and Kerr finally quipped, “I’m wondering if there are any Democrats left back in Cherry Creek this afternoon.”

Testing took up more than three hours of the committee’s marathon session, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran until just after 8.

Almost every witness who spoke supported the testing-study bill, but most also stressed that they wished it did more, like temporarily pulling Colorado out of the coming PARCC tests and allowing parents to opt out of testing. The testimony was reminiscent of what witnesses said during a Feb. 17 House Education Committee hearing, the last time the bill had a full committee hearing (see story).

Here’s a sampling of what Thursday’s witnesses said:

  • “The amount of testing should be reduced. … It disengages students, who lose focus during testing time. We need to be smart about the time we have with students.” – Judy Branch, Douglas County School District professional learning specialist
  • “We as a culture are overburdening our students, teachers and schools with excessive testing.” – Rachael Stickland, Jefferson County parent activist
  • “Our teachers and students are drowning in the amount of testing we have. … All of this is taking away from valuable teaching time.” – Karen Wick, Colorado Education Association lobbyist
  • “I feel what has gotten out of balance is the amount of standardized testing that is external to the school” and not developed within a school. – Syna Morgan, Dougco assessment coordinator

HB 14-1202, which has a price tag of $142,750, would create a 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force to review how the state student assessment system is administered, how data are used and the impact of state tests on local testing, instructional time and administrative workload. The panel also is supposed to review the feasibility of waivers from testing.

The two party leaders in each house of the legislature and the chair of State Board of Education would appoint the members. The panel’s report and legislative recommendations would be due Jan. 31, 2015, and minority reports would be allowed. The bill’s appropriation is to fund CDE to study testing costs, potential effects of changes on the accountability system and do legal analyses. The department is already conducting its own review of testing, which is supposed to be used by the task force.

The bill started its legislative life as a sweeping proposal to allow individual school districts to opt out of state achievement tests, but it was quickly turned into a study by the House.

Another testing measure, Senate Bill 14-136, proposed a one-year delay in implementation of new academic standards and of PARCC tests. It was killed by the Senate Education Committee. And the House had a lively – but symbolic – floor debate last month on an unsuccessful amendment to remove funding for PARCC tests from the 2014-15 state budget.

Both the State Board and members of the CEA have passed resolutions urging that Colorado withdraw from PARCC.

Other decisions from a long hearing

Senate Education approved significant amendments to House Bill 14-1102, which proposed to impose new requirements on district gifted and talented programs and to provide some additional funding for such programs.

The committee approved amendments that would eliminate the bill’s original requirements that districts evaluate all students for gifted status and that all districts employ certified gifted and talented specialists to oversee their programs. Districts would be “encouraged” to do those things under the amendment. The amended bill passed 6-1.

The committee voted 4-3 to pass House Bill 14-1156, which would make all third- to fifth-grade students who are now eligible for reduced-priced lunches eligible for free lunches. Universal free lunch is already available to K-2 students.

For the record

The House Thursday voted final approval of two education bills. House Bill 14-1381 would set public information, timetable and student reassignment requirements for schools that are to be closed because of low performance. House Bill 14-1384 would create a new merit-based state financial aid program, supported by both public and private funding. The bill also would fund college counseling programs for high school students.

Testing reboot

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2.5 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.

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.