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.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: