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.

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.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.