Testing Time

Testing time shuffles schedules, impacts instruction

As close to half of the state’s school districts wrap up their first week of standardized testing and the rest prepare to start, school and district leaders have mixed feelings about how state standardized tests affect instructional time.

In some Colorado districts, concern over the amount of staff and student time dedicated to testing instead of instruction has risen to unprecedented levels. At least one district is conducting a survey to gauge how much staff time is tied up in testing, while across the state, some students and their parents are refusing to participate in the test.

In other districts, leaders say the new state tests are themselves a learning experience for students and that this round of tests will not have a dramatically bigger impact on instructional time than in previous years.

For all, the testing window is a time of unusual schedules and of juggling resources, staff, and schedules.

“Basically all work on improving instruction comes to a halt so that the buildings can manage the disruption of the testing windows,” said Jason Glass, the superintendent of the Eagle County Schools, which includes Vail.

“We all recognize that it’s taking instructional time to do it, but we also all recognize that it’s required by the state,” said Elizabeth Fagen, the superintendent of Douglas County schools. “So you have to figure out how to make it work.”

Logistics and technology

Colorado is using a new set of assessments this year. The language arts and math tests were developed by the testing company Pearson for PARCC, one of two multi-state testing groups, and are based on the Common Core State Standards. Science and social studies tests are Colorado-only exams. (Read more about this year’s assessment program here.)

Many districts have been preparing for the shift from the previous paper-and-pencil tests to the new assessments for several years by purchasing devices and training teachers and students on how to administer and take the test.

District leaders said that their spending on technology is an investment in classrooms and instruction, not just in online testing. But a school’s technological set-up is part of determining how much finagling is necessary to accommodate the tests. 

In the tiny Center district in the San Luis Valley, where all students have a laptop or device, Superintendent George Welsh said students can test in their classrooms.

In other districts, however, schools are repurposing rooms and constructing schedules that allow students to use available devices. That means that the technology or space isn’t available for regular class uses.

In Colorado Springs 11, some libraries will be testing centers for the remainder of the year, said chief financial officer officer Glenn Gustafson. Library technology staff at the school will be focused on supporting the online assessments between March and May.

And in the Montrose-Olathe district on the Western Slope, the district has converted art and music rooms in all elementary schools to testing centers. That means those teachers are roaming until end of school year, according to Mark MacHale, the district’s superintendent.

Staff resources

The staff time devoted to preparing for tests has come under fire.

In the Boulder Valley School District, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said, the district is conducting a survey in its schools of how much staff time is dedicated to test preparations.

“It’s literally countless hours,” said Rhonda Haniford, the principal of Centaurus High School. “One of my assistant principals is full-time working on this. I have a teacher who is partly dedicated to test coordination and another who’s focused on accommodations.”

Glass, the Eagle County superintendent, said that professional development for teachers and teacher-leaders comes to a halt during testing time. “We just can’t afford to have building leaders away in the event something goes wrong in terms of the testing technology.”

He said school district employees were spending time preparing for tests that could otherwise be spent on “the art and science of teaching.”

“The daily and hourly rate costs for hundreds of employees (or thousands in the case of larger districts) is a significant opportunity cost impact,” he said.

Teachers and administrators also had to be trained in how to proctor the online tests, which are being used in most schools, said Matt Reynolds, Douglas County’s chief assessment and systems performance officer.

High school challenge

Testing schedules look different in elementary, middle, and high schools. In Denver, most elementary school literacy tests are administered during the schools’ literacy block early in the day, which is already more than two hours long.

“It’s no more complicated than it was in the past,” said Rob Beam, the principal at Johnson Elementary School in Denver. “It’s actually less complicated in some ways, because the computer changes the accommodations.”

For instance, students who previously had the tests read out loud to them by an adult can now listen to the test with headphones, Beam said. Johnson school is also part of an extended learning time program, which Beam said might ease some concerns about lost instructional time.

But scheduling is more complicated in high schools, where classes are often shorter and where a single class might have students from multiple grades. A class with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, for instance, would be interrupted by each grade’s tests.

Districts have taken different approaches. In the Elizabeth district, Superintendent Douglas Bissonette said, “as for high school students in grades not being tested, they will not be required to attend school during testing. It proves nearly impossible to plan teacher and student schedules and classroom spaces to accommodate both testing and instruction at the same time for our comprehensive high school.”

The Cheyenne Mountain district took a similar approach, said Superintendent Walt Cooper. “We need to do this because of the numbers of staff necessary to proctor,” he said, noting that scheduling is his single biggest frustration with the tests.

But in Aurora, chief information officer Steven Clagg said that while scheduling in high schools is “a challenge” because testing times are longer than normal class periods, there will be no late starts or early releases for high schoolers.

Meanwhile, at Centaurus High School in Boulder, Haniford said, teachers in mixed-grade classes search for ways to create meaningful assignments for students who are not testing while not leaving the students who are testing behind.

An intrusion, or part of the program?

Opinions about the tests’ value vary. In Denver, Ivan Duran, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, said that while testing does put a pause in business as usual at a school, “assessment’s part of the instructional program. We build it into the schedule.”

Duran said that the technological investment and skills students need to take the tests are also useful to them in non-testing context.

DPS Chief Academic Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust said that district’s stance is that the senior tests are not “the most instructionally appropriate use” of students’ time. But, she said, the new tests mean there is “greater alignment between assessments, standards, and college- and career- readiness.” She said the new question formats are “nice resources for teachers to design their own classroom tests” and that the data tests provide is useful.

But in Boulder, concerns about how tests affect instructional time has been burgeoning since this fall, when a group of seniors protested against science and social studies tests for 12th graders. “Buy-in is very low,” said Centaurus principal Haniford.

The students’ concerns are mirrored by district and school officials. Superintendent Messinger said that while the district is not opposed to assessment in theory, “we think the current level is burdensome.” Centaurus principal Haniford said she is concerned that the tests do not give teachers useful feedback in a timely manner.

On the day testing began, Haniford said that her phone was ringing regularly with calls from parents wanting to pull their children out of tests. She said the major concern parents shared was that the tests take away students’ time to prepare for tests like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, which could earn them college credit or an advanced high school degree.

Haniford said those students who were not taking the test could spend the time in the school’s student center.

Capitol Editor Todd Engdahl contributed research to this story.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.