Staking out positions

Testing task force starts getting into the nitty-gritty

Members of Standards and Assessments Task Force met with representatives of a group (left) who raised issues with the panel's lack of diversity.

The task force studying the state’s K-12 testing system gathered for a third time Monday and finally started surfacing some of the tough issues facing them as the panel tries to develop recommendations for the 2015 legislative session.

The first two meetings of the 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force, one in July and one in August, were taken up largely with informational briefings and organizational matters, producing little discussion of interest.

The clock is ticking for the group, which for now has four more full meetings scheduled before the Jan. 31, 2015, deadline for a report and recommendations on what’s probably the most contentious issue in Colorado education.

John Creighton, a task force member who sits on the St. Vrain Valley school board, suggested that the group needed to start discussing some key issues while it waits for a testing cost study and gathers public comment.

“We’re about halfway through our timeline,” Creighton said. “Given the amount of time we have together … do we think we want to have some of that conversation in parallel with public input and waiting for the studies?… I would suggest we need to move more rapidly.”

The task force kicked around a number of issues Monday but spent much of its time on the question of whether districts could be given greater flexibility in what tests they use.

(House Bill 14-1202, the law that created the task force, started out as a Republican bill to give districts significant testing flexibility. As a political compromise, the Democratic majority quickly amended into the task force study.)

Tony Lewis, a member of the Charter School Institute board, kicked off the discussion by raising the question of whether the state should be testing all students with standardized exams or if the state should use results of local tests for its purposes, primarily district and school accountability.

“I struggle with the state’s need for individual student assessment,” he said.

That prompted a dialog that hinted at the varying views of task force members.

“We don’t want 164 different versions of assessment,” cautioned Donna Lynne, chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. (Colorado actually has 178 school districts.)

Alana Spiegel, who represents the parent group SPEAK, said, “As a parent I do want 160-some different assessments. … As a parent I want less of a burden” of state tests.

Others were cautious about too much flexibility. State standardized testing has brought “significant value in highlighting achievement gaps,” said Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “We’ve had more significant discussions about gaps in the last 10 years than we had in the previous 50 years.”

Teacher Dane Stickney of Strive Prep Charter said, “I really do enjoy having that standardized testing data every year” for insights into his mostly low-income students. “I really worry about going to all-local testing.”

Dan Snowberger, Durango schools superintendent and task force chair, noted, “Rural districts don’t have the resources to devise a local system. There’s a lot of value to a state assessment system.”

Syna Morgan, chief academic officer for the Jeffco schools, said she wasn’t arguing for “all local” testing but that “There’s a feeling of overburden at every level” and that districts need some flexibility. “I’m for balance.” (Morgan previously was system performance officer for the Dougco schools. That district’s board last January passed a resolution urging districts be allowed to opt out of state testing requirements.)

Members also discussed what changes in testing could mean for the Colorado Growth Model, which tracks student academic growth based on multiple years of test results.

“To me growth is the true report card,” said Jay Cerney, principal of the Cherry Creek Academy charter in Englewood.

“Growth is very important,” said Stickney, and Jaeger said, “I’m still in a place where I feel the statewide assessment should measure growth.”

Monday’s comments could be taken as the opening statements in what will be a recurring debate as parent and some district representatives like Morgan urge more testing flexibility while education reform and business members urge caution. Other task force members seem to be somewhere in the middle.

“It’s a critical conversation, and I think it gave everybody a chance to learn a little bit about where we stand,” said Snowberger, summing up. “It’s only the beginning.”

“It is not that people want to radically change the assessments,” said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability officer for the Aurora schools. “There is a perception that testing has grown and mushroomed to be unmanageable.” What the legislature wants the task force to do, she said, is offer ways “that will bring the system back into balance.”

Task force make-up politely questioned

Later in the meeting, the task force met with representatives from a group named COAT (Community Organizations Aligning Together).

In a letter to legislators last month, the group wrote, “We are concerned about the lack of representation of organizations, and/or individuals who represent the leadership, strengths and experiences in communities of color. We feel very strongly that the appointed individuals, who will be making decisions that will impact the future of a large portion of the students in our state, should include representation from individuals of organizations that have well established and trusted relationships within communities of color.” (Read the full letter here.)

Task force members were appointed by five people – the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and the chair of the State Board of Education – and were supposed to represent various education interest groups. Fourteen task force members are white; one is Native American. Some 4.7 percent of Colorado students are black; 32.8 percent are Hispanic, based on 2013 state enrollment figures.

“How are those voices and that perspective to be brought” to the task force, asked Jennifer Bacon, a COAT representative who’s with Teach for America. She was among four people who spoke to the group.

Task force members were sympathetic to the group’s concerns while noting they didn’t appoint themselves. Snowberger said he would talk to legislators about the possibility of adding an ex-officio minority member to the group and having that person formally added to the task force after the legislature convenes in January.

That issue led into a broader discussion of whether the task force is set up to get a wide enough range of public comment about testing. (Morgan said she was concerned that parents of all kinds might not be able to express their views. “Numerous groups” want their voices heard, she said.)

The task force agreed to look into setting up additional roundtable-type meetings, perhaps outside the Denver area, as a way of getting more public views.

The group already has set up an email address for public comment – 1202taskforcefeedback@gmail.com – and is working to set up an online survey. (Read the comments received to date here. Most are critical about the current testing system.)

The task force isn’t completely under the radar. Monday’s meeting at the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce attracted an audience of more than three dozen, including education lobbyists, CDE and legislative staff, parent activists and others.

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.