SBE pulls a surprise

State Board votes 4-3 to give districts waiver option on testing

A divided State Board of Education has fired the first official shot in Colorado’s 2015 testing wars, but it remains to be seen if that action is a live round or a dud.

The board Thursday voted 4-3 to allow school districts to seek waivers from administering the first part of PARCC tests in language arts and math, scheduled to be given in March.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the board it doesn’t have the authority to do that, and Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said he wouldn’t grant such waivers unless told he could do so by the attorney general’s office.

“Should this motion pass it probably wouldn’t have legal effect,” Dyl told the board before the vote. “This is a part of the law you do not have the power to waive.”

Hammond told the board, “If you pass this motion I will not implement it until I get guidance from the attorney general’s office. … It could have widespread implications on schools.”

The motion was made by Steve Durham, a new Republican board member from Colorado Springs, and seconded by Deb Scheffel, a Republican member from Douglas County, Also voting for it were new Democratic member Valentina Flores from Denver and Republican Pam Mazanec from Douglas County.

“If the commissioner elects not to grant those [waivers] that’s up to him,” Durham said. “I believe a much fuller legal analysis is required, and I fully intend to meet with the attorney general.” Interviewed after the meeting, Durham said, “I hope someone makes a waiver request and moves it forward. … Should the commissioner decide he does not want to grant a waiver, then someone who applies for a waiver and is not granted one can litigate the question.”

Voting no were chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, and Democrats Angelika Schroeder of Boulder and Jane Goff of Arvada.

“If we pass this motion it will cause chaos in the state and in the districts,” Neal said. “This is a terrible motion. We need to defeat it and then we need to work to get this state out of PARCC.”

Neal also said, “I would get out of PARCC if I could. We don’t have that ability with the legislation that’s in place.”

The issue wasn’t on the board’s agenda and was brought up suddenly by Durham, a veteran lobbyist and former Republican legislator who recently was appointed to fill a board vacancy.

Durham said after the meeting that he tried to get the issue on the board’s agenda but wasn’t able to. Referring to his legislative skills, Durham said he tried to “shoehorn” the motion into an appropriate part of the meeting. The board was being briefed on school finance when Durham asked about the cost of testing and then brought up the motion.

The language arts and match PARCC tests are scheduled to be given in two parts, one in March and another at the end of the school year.

Durham argued that districts should be able to give only the end-of-year tests if they choose.

Department of Education staff told the board the two parts can’t be separated. “These are are not two tests. There are two components to the test,” said Department of Education testing chief Joyce Zurkowski, who hustled from her office to the boardroom after the discussion started.

Durham’s comment was “Somehow we walked ourselves … into a two-part test that we’re really not obligated to have.”

Testing is expected to be hot issue during the new legislative session, but many lawmakers are awaiting the report of the advisory Standards and Assessments Task Force, which is due by Jan. 31. (The divided group meets again Friday.)

Durham sounded dismissive of the group, saying, “I suspect the results are going to be tainted by the conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest of those serving.”

Durham said he’d been working on the motion for a few days and that it had been suggested to him by someone whom he wouldn’t identify.

Near the end of the meeting, Durham raised the issue of the Common Core State Standards, indicating he’d like Colorado to get out of them and saying, “One of the things I’d like to see from the commissioner is a series of recommendations that would end in this result.”

“To get out of Common Core does take legislative action,” Hammond said.

Other board members balked a bit at Durham’s suggestion, and everyone seemed to agree to take the issue up as a formal agenda item in February.

Last spring the board (with a slightly different membership) voted 4-3 for a resolution asking the legislature to withdraw Colorado from the PARCC testing group (see this story). Lawmakers took no action.

In November the board issued a unanimous letter suggesting that the amount of state testing be reduced (see story).

Reaction measured on board action

The board’s decision, first reported by Chalkbeat Colorado, spread quickly among lobbyists and lawmakers at the Capitol.

Senate Education Committee Chair Owen Hill said, “The people elect the State board and give it authority over the commissioner. I’m confident the commissioner will do everything in his legal power to do the wishes of his boss, the State Board.”

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, said the board vote “obviously will shape this discussion” but that he remains committed to holding off on consideration of testing bills until after the task force makes its report. “We’re going to honor that process.”

Hill also said he’s invited Hammond to meet with Senate Education to discuss the issue of testing waivers.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, would only say, “I really hope the State Board understands its authority in making or not making policy.” Kerr is the senior Democrat on Senate Education Committee.

Jane Urschel, top lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards, sat in on part of the board’s discussion. “This is not really a surprise, but will this action truncate the legislative process, where we will have public deliberation on this important and emotional issue?” she wondered.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: