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.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.