No exit

State has limited flexibility on testing, feds say

Colorado has few options if policymakers want to create a more flexible state testing system, or one that lets districts make their own assessment choices, the State Board of Education learned Wednesday.

The board has been paying a lot of attention to testing ever since 2014 TCAP results were released in August, trying to make its voice heard in the growing state debate over the issue. (See this story for background on board member views.)

Among the key questions in that debate is whether Colorado should reduce testing to only what’s required by the federal government, if it’s possible to test just sample groups of students and if districts can have flexibility to choose their own tests.

A growing number of districts have raised questions about their testing options, Department of Education officials say.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond formally posed some key questions to the U.S. Department of Education, and the board was briefed on the answers at its monthly meeting. It wasn’t what some members wanted to hear.

Here’s a summary of the questions and answers. Read the full DOE letter here – warning, the language is pretty dense. Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen called it “a weighty document and somewhat difficult to work through.”

What are the federal requirements for frequency, grade levels and content?

The department and the board basically learned what they already know: that all children must be tested in language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science tests are required once at each level of K-12 education. Colorado tests considerably more than those requirements – get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.

Do states have to give the same tests to all students?

Yes. A state “may not assess only a sample of students, even if that sample is representative of students in each LEA (local education agency – jargon for ‘district’) or the state as a whole,” read the letter. (The exception to this is that a separate test can be used for students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.”)

“That’s a big issue that we get a lot of questions about. Sampling is not allowed,” Owen said.

Can a state use a combination of state and local tests?

The DOE letter says there’s “some flexibility” on this issue, but it goes on to detail a long list of difficult regulatory hurdles that would to be jumped for this to happen.

What happens if a state doesn’t meet federal requirements?

It could lose a lot of federal money, particularly Title I funds for low-income students and IDEA money for special education students. Prompted by a question from SBE chair Paul Lundeen, Owen said the worst-case estimate “easily” could be $500 million for Colorado. (The DOE letter outlines a long list of “progressive discipline” steps that would be used before the cash would be cut off.)

Can the secretary of education waive testing requirements?

No and yes – sort of. Testing requirements cannot be waived for individual districts. At the state level, “the secretary would likely not lightly waive such core requirements absent compelling reasons that their waiver would benefit students,” read the letter.

“We’ve reached far and wide to find any loophole.” Owen said.

“Wow,” said Lundeen, thanking CDE staff for pushing the DOE for answers. “This is an issue present in the minds of every educator in Colorado today.”

Hammond indicated he thinks CDE didn’t find any loopholes and that current federal law doesn’t give states many options. “The key to this is reauthorization of ESEA,” the main body of federal education law that a divided Congress hasn’t been able to act on. He also said changing the testing system might draw scrutiny from DOE’s civil rights office.

“With the legislation we have we’re stuck. … We basically ran out of options for next year,” Hammond said, referring to the full rollout of the new online PARCC tests in the spring of 2015.

Lundeen, who’s leaving the board because he’s running unopposed for a seat in the state House, urged the board and the department to keep researching alternatives to PARCC. Lundeen is not a fan of the current system.

He also noted that earlier this year the board passed a resolution urging the state withdraw from PARCC (see story). Denver member Elaine Gantz Berman reminded him that the vote was 4-3. The legislature paid no mind to that resolution.

Testing is expected to be a key education issue for the 2015 legislature. The 2014 legislative session more or less evaded the issue by creating a task force to study testing. (See this Chalkbeat story for the latest on what that group is doing.)

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.