Testing backlash

Returning Democratic lawmaker vows testing cutback

Sen. Mike Merrifield, center, is flanked by JBC members Pat Steadman (left) and Bob Rankin.

New state Sen. Mike Merrifield draw applause from school board members Thursday when he promised, “I will definitely carry some legislation that will push back on the amount of testing that I think is drowning our education system.”

Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat who previously served in the House, appeared with five other lawmakers at a legislative forum during the Colorado Association of School Boards convention.

The annual forum usually provides good indications of top education issues in the upcoming legislative session.

Merrifield was one of two Democrats on the panel, but his comments fit right in with the reduce-testing, reduce-regulation, local-control statements made by Republicans.

And his remarks indicated that GOP lawmakers, who were the prime critics of state testing during the 2014 session, probably have found a Democratic ally.

“I’m actually looking forward to working with those across the aisle and learning about issues I’ve perhaps been rigid about in the past,” Merrifield said. He added he’s still working on how much testing can be cut but said “down to the bare bones as far as I’m concerned.”

Republican Sen. Owen Hill also highlighted testing, asking, “How do we listen and respect the voices of so many who’ve said this testing is over-burdensome.” The trick, Hill said, is cutting back on testing without weakening accountability or violating federal requirements.

“I think we can do this. … I hope this can be a focus this year.”

Watch a video of the legislative panel, courtesy of CASB

Hill also is from Colorado Springs, and people who follow El Paso County politics might think he and Merrifield are about as far apart as politicians can be.

But both men made a point of saying they’d recently had breakfast together to discuss education issues.

“I was almost shocked to learn how much Senator Hill and I have in common. That gives me a feeling of confidence that we’ll be able to work together,” Merrifield said. Hill will chair the Senate Education Committee next year, and Merrifield will be one of four Democratic members.

Hill also said reducing testing and other “unfunded mandates” could be a way to partially address school board concerns about K-12 funding cuts of recent years.

The upcoming session “provides a great opportunity to empower you with resources and use this as an opportunity to scale back on some of these mandates,” Hill told the audience of board members from around the state, meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

“It’s time to open up this box of mandates,” agreed Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth.

Lawmakers sympathetic on funding but make no promises

The panel spent a lot of time on K-12 funding, a sore point for boards and districts because years of cuts have left a $900 million shortfall in school support, a gap called the negative factor.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he has “lots of questions” about both Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $200 million cut in the negative factor – which would be temporary – and about an additional $70 million increase suggested by a group of superintendents.

The state’s 2015-16 budget is “an extremely intricate combination of moving parts – with a lot of special interests involved,” said Steadman, the most experienced member of the Joint Budget Committee.

The negative factor has sometimes been compared to an unpaid credit card balance. “The balance on that credit card will take a long time to be paid off,” warned Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Carbondale.

“The JBC will be strong supporters of your needs – to the extent we can,” added Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, a new member of the budget panel. He also said he has concerns about the usefulness of a one-time reduction in the negative factor.

Tracee Bentley, Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said the governor feels a one-time reduction would be fiscally prudent and still help districts pay some of the costs of recent state mandates.

CASB lobbyist Jane Urschel, who moderated the panel, said, “We want it to be recurring money, of course, but we believe districts can handle one-time money.”

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

course count

In New York, students of color lack access to advanced coursework, new analysis finds

PHOTO: Emilija Manevska
Student writing on blackboard

If a student lived in a suburban, wealthy school district in New York state last year, her chances of attending a school with six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate were greater than 90 percent.

In New York City – where students are far more likely to be black and Hispanic – a student’s chances of accessing such a rich curriculum plummeted to 18 percent.

That is just one example of how New York’s black and Latino students are denied access to advanced coursework, including math, science, music, and foreign language classes, according to a new analysis of 2017 data released by the New York Equity Coalition, a group of about 20 civic organizations. The lack of access cripples students trying to prepare for college and denies them the chance to take rigorous coursework, the report’s authors argue.

“It should be cause for alarm and action,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, which is part of the coalition and conducted the analysis. “We see this question of access to rich and robust coursework as being essential for New York students.”

In New York City, officials have acknowledged many students of color lack access to advanced courses — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight it. The city has announced initiatives aimed at expanding middle school algebra courses, Advanced Placement classes in high school, and computer science education.

But Education Trust-NY’s new analysis sheds light on the depth of the problem facing the city. It also suggests that simply adding classes will not be enough to enroll more black and Latino students in advanced coursework, since these students are often under-enrolled in these courses even when they are offered at their schools.

The analysis looked at “gatekeeper” courses, which authors say either provide a springboard to higher-level courses or allow students to develop important skills or passions. The courses include middle school algebra and earth science, calculus, physics, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, computer science, advanced foreign language, and music.

Across the board, Education Trust-NY found that students of color in New York state are under-enrolled in these courses compared to their white and Asian peers. For instance, for every 100 New York high school students, about 15 white students and 20 Asian took physics, while only around seven black or Latino students did the same.

The analysis finds two reasons for the lack of enrollment among New York’s black and Latino students. The first is that students of color are more likely to attend schools that do not offer these courses. That problem was particularly acute in the state’s urban centers, including New York City, which enroll a greater share of the state’s black and Hispanic students than other areas in the state.

For instance, the share of New York City schools that offered algebra in middle school and physics, calculus, music, and advanced foreign language in high school was more than 20 percentage points lower than the state average in each case.

Secondly, even if advanced courses are offered in schools, black and Latino students may not enroll in the classes, the analysis finds. For instance, in New York City, 56 percent of students in schools offering calculus last year were Latino or black, while only 35 percent of student enrolled in calculus were Latino or black.

The city is working hard to combat both of these problems, officials say. Since the mayor unveiled his “Equity and Excellence” agenda in 2015, 152 high schools are offering new Advanced Placement courses, teachers have been trained across 550 schools to offer computer science classes, and teachers across 357 elementary schools have received training in the city’s initiative to boost algebra participation.

Additionally, since the 2017 school year, which is the year used in Ed Trust-NY’s analysis, 89 more schools in New York City offer additional Advanced Placement classes, according to city officials. However, it is unclear exactly how many new schools are offering algebra in middle school or computer science classes, they said.

The city also instituted a Lead Higher initiative, aimed at reducing disparities in enrollment among underserved students at schools that already have AP classes.

However, there are some aspects of the city school system that might work against offering more advanced classes in every school. The previous administration split many large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. Since smaller schools may lack the teaching capacity or number of students to justify a wide range of courses, students’ options may be limited.

New York City’s high school system is also extremely stratified by academic achievement. Top schools are allowed to select the city’s high-performing students, while the remaining schools have few students who can complete grade-level work in English and math. As a result, those schools – which disproportionately serve students of color – may lack advanced classes.

Critics may say that the lack of advanced classes is a symptom of a bigger problem: That many black and Latino students have not been prepared for more advanced coursework in their elementary and middle schools. Rosenblum said that may be true in some cases, but there are also many students who are prepared to succeed in advanced classes but are not given the opportunity.

“The research is really clear that vastly more students can succeed in higher-level and advanced courses than are currently in them,” Rosenblum said, adding, “If we want students to be prepared for rigorous courses in high school, we need more rigorous courses to prepare them.”

The analysis also points to another reason that student of color may not be encouraged to pursue advanced coursework: a lack of guidance counselors. Eight percent of black and Latino students attend a middle school without a guidance counselor, which is double the rate of their white peers. In high school, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where there are more than 250 students for every guidance counselor, whereas 27 percent of their white peers do the same.

Rosenblum and others at the New York Equity Coalition have posited several solutions to the problems outlined in their analysis. One suggestion would have students default to a more advanced set of courses that begins with taking algebra in middle school. In this scenario, parents would have to sign a waiver to opt students out of this more challenging path.

Solutions like this have the potential to appeal to those with dueling educational philosophies. On the one hand, it could appeal to those who have been calling for higher educational standards – since it would encourage more advanced coursework. On the other, it does not rely on test scores to achieve those higher standards.

This debate has bubbled to the surface recently in a conversation about New York’s Regents exams, which students typically must pass before graduating. Some argue the tests help make graduation requirements more rigorous, while others say they are a poor way to ensure more students are prepared for college.

State policymakers have signaled they are interested in rethinking graduation requirements and have already carved out exceptions for some students that stray from the traditional path of passing five Regents exams. But they have not yet coupled it with a way to ensure that students remain focused on advanced classes, raising concerns from advocates that they have been dropping standards.

Further, a wide range of politicians and policymakers have called for increased access to rich coursework, including officials at the state education department, de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival Cynthia Nixon.