Testing Madness

Two Colorado high schools expect mass opt-outs from tests this week

PHOTO: via CMAS Protest (YouTube)
Students at Fairview High School in Boulder, in a YouTube video, explained why they're opting-out of this fall's standardized tests.

For the first time, two Colorado school districts could see their high schools face sanctions because a critical mass of seniors are refusing to take the state’s new standardized tests.

In what will likely be the largest — and most public — assault so far on the state’s school accountability system, nearly 200 high school students at a Boulder high school are expected to opt-out of the new standardized tests they’re supposed to take Thursday and Friday. Instead, they will hold a public protest Thursday morning outside their school.

And in Douglas County, at least one principal has made a formal plea to parents to do what ever they can to have their students take the social studies and science tests this week.

And rumors continue to grow that more schools across the state will see similar levels of students opting out.

While opponents to standardized tests cite many reasons why they opt their students out, students at Boulder’s Fairview High School, where the public demonstration will take place, say they’ve been tested their entire educational career and enough is enough.

“We want to change the community for the better, and change the way our education system works,” said Rachel Perley, a senior at Fairview High School and one of the lead organizers behind the protest.

In interviews with Chalkbeat Colorado, and in a YouTube video and open letter to school and state officials, Boulder students said the new exams won’t have a direct impact on their college or career trajectory. They also claimed the tests don’t align with their high school curriculum. And they fear the gap between their ninth grade science class and their senior year won’t serve as a reliable indicator of how much they learned.

While the decision by students and their families not to take the test will have little impact on their future, their respective schools might face repercussions not seen before in Colorado.

State law requires that schools maintain a 95 percent participation rate in each exam. But if 95 percent of students don’t participate in two or more content areas the school’s accreditation rating is lowered. If a school’s accreditation drops too low, and stays there for five years, the school district that operates that school could face more sanctions.

And while it’s likely that this is the first year that any school is in serious jeopardy of not meeting that 95 percent threshold, it’s not yet clear how the state might respond if schools miss that bar.

Some schools, fearful of a lowered accreditation rating, are urging parents who are wavering to make their students participate.

Douglas County’s Mountain Vista High School Principal Michael Weaver, in a Oct. 31 letter to parents, said the number of opt-out letters he’s received already crosses a threshold that puts his school’s accreditation in jeopardy. He requested parents do whatever they can to make sure their students take the test.

“I am certain that the Class of 2015 understands that Mountain Vista and our staff have never considered opting out or refusing to support them as they have navigated through their high school careers,” he wrote.

Other schools are keeping meticulous track of parent refusals, hoping that evidence will be sufficient to keep their accreditation rating. At urging of state officials, they’re collecting letters, emails, and keeping phone logs of conversations.

As of Friday, administrators at Fairview had 180 letters of refusal, or 30 percent of the senior class.

“It will be interesting if our accreditation is jeopardized because of the lack of participation of CMAS,” said Don Stensrud, Fairview’s principal. “Kids here literally go to all the Ivy’s across the nation.”

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he’s had ongoing conversations with the students behind the Fairview protest and that he is empathetic to their concerns about testing. But, he said, his schools will still proctor the tests.

“What I’ve conveyed to them — and nothing has been confrontational — is that ‘just so you know, you’re not in a very different place than where your board of education or superintendent is. We’re having those same conversations with state lawmakers, but we’re under a legal obligation to administer these tests,'” he said.

Colorado has an established opposition to the state’s exams, and small number of families have always chosen to opt their students out of standardized tests. But on average, the number of students who don’t take the test based on parent refusal — Colorado’s technical term for opting out — has been less than one percent. Even last year, when it appeared the opt-out movement was stronger than ever, opt-outs only ticked up slightly.

But the students in Boulder are working outside the established opt-out community and said they’ve come to their conclusions about the new tests on their own.

Because of that, the protest and apparent increase of students refusing to take the test at other Colorado schools is likely to provide established opponents of standardized tests with plenty of ammunition as the state continues to wrestle with the question of standardized exams.

“A lot of it has to do — and I’ve been wondering what is the difference is this year, myself — with trying to test seniors, because that’s crazy,” said Karen McGraw, a Mountain Vista High School parent and leader at United Opt Out, an organization that organizes parents against standardized tests across the nation.

McGraw has opted her children out of Colorado’s testing system for three years.

“I don’t think the tests are good for kids, I don’t think they’re good for teachers, I don’t think they’re good for the future of public education,” McGraw said.

The debate over the November tests mirrors a much larger conversation happening across the nation and state.

Parents in Florida blasted their state’s testing system at a recent parent meeting. During the summer, media personality Glenn Beck held a virtual town hall to rally opponents to the Common Core State Standards and their aligned exams. And last spring, two teachers in New York decided to not administer the tests themselves.

Meanwhile in Colorado, parents, school officials, and lawmakers have for the past year been embroiled in a debate about what role standardized assessments should play in the classroom and in the state’s accountability system.

“I do know we have a number of families who believe this [new] test does not make sense,” said Liz Fagen, Douglas County’s superintendent.

Earlier this year, the school district hosted a series of meetings to discuss the state’s testing system.

While Fagen declined to discuss specific numbers of parent refusals the district has received so far this fall, she said, “It seems to me, [the number of opt-outs] have been building over the last few years. But our response is we’re required to give these assessments. And we’re going to — in good faith — administer these tests, document parent refusals, and provide makeups.”

Meanwhile, the district will continue to lobby for a change to the system, she said.

“We’re big fans of accountability, but we don’t think this is the answer,” Fagen said.

Currently, every Colorado student enrolled between the third and 11th grade are required to take language arts and math exams. Also, one grade per elementary, middle, and high school level are required to take a social studies and science test. High school juniors are also required to take the ACT.

During the last legislative session, a bill that would have allowed some school districts waivers from the state’s standardized tests — which goes above and beyond what’s required by the federal government — was amended to instead form a review committee to study the issue. That committee, which is currently on a listening tour throughout the state, must make recommendations — if any — to the General Assembly next year.

Broadly, supporters of the exams believe there is power in the data the tests yield. They believe the results can hold schools accountable to teach every student regardless of race, economic background, or ability, and can inform how effective teachers are at their jobs. Opponents, meanwhile, believe the tests are punitive, gobble up too much instruction time, and are nothing more than a ploy to make money for curriculum companies.

Which path the legislature may take next session is unknown.

If the Fairview students have it their way, the senior social studies and science tests will be abolished.

“Hopefully, the protest make a change,” Perley, the Fairview senior, said.

Fairview High School students explain why they’re opting out

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.