Capitol intrigue

New twists complicate testing debate

Developments Tuesday afternoon provided fresh twists to the Colorado legislature’s complicated testing debate, including introduction of a bill that would formalize the right of parents to opt out of tests.

The new measure also would bar the state from penalizing school districts for low student participation.

Also Tuesday, the Colorado Education Association issued a statement critical of Sen. Owen Hill’s Senate Bill 15-215. Union President Kerrie Dallman said the bill “takes a few, tentative steps toward easing the testing burden for some students, but it’s largely a bill of cosmetic changes. Most parents across the state will be left asking, ‘How does this help my child?’”

Those developments came just hours after Gov. John Hickenlooper publicly endorsed Hill’s bill, a move seen as an effort to shore up faltering support for the bill. (See this story for details on the governor’s news conference.)

Still unanswered Tuesday evening was the question of whether the bill will be heard as scheduled by the Senate Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Education lobbyists who’ve been following the bill don’t believe Hill, chairman of Senate Education, has the votes on his own committee to pass it.

But Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, told Chalkbeat Colorado Tuesday afternoon that he was considering delaying the bill because Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, might not be able to attend the hearing. Johnston’s father died earlier this week.

Hill wasn’t available for comment late Tuesday evening. But another committee member said the bill would be laid over for consideration at a later date.

(Get more information on the bill in this story.)

Reportedly waiting in the wings if SB 15-215 falters is a proposal – not yet introduced – by Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. A recent bill draft reviewed by Chalkbeat Colorado includes provisions that would ban testing beyond federal minimum requirements, allow districts to ask state approval for giving local tests in place of state assessments, give districts flexibility on when to administer science and social studies tests, and provide schools significantly greater flexibility in assessing school readiness and early literacy of young students.

The draft bill also would require the Department of Education to ask the federal government for permission to use the ACT test as the sole high school test.

Also, the bill would change the use of student academic growth measures in evaluation of teachers. Current law (which is on hold for this school year only) requires that growth measures account for 50 percent of evaluations.

As drafted, the draft bill would allow districts to choose what percentage they want to use for growth, but the level couldn’t exceed 20 percent. Growth calculated from student scores on multiple years of state tests is one of the measures used to calculate growth of a teacher’s students. Local growth measures also are used in many districts.

That provision is attractive to the state teachers union, but tinkering with the teacher evaluation system is anathema to the education reform and business groups whose representatives flanked Hickenlooper at the morning news conference.

Six other testing bills were introduced previously, but none of them are considered likely to pass. See the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this story for details.

Opt-out bill has wide support

The opt-out proposal, Senate Bill 15-223, has bipartisan support and 31 cosponsors, a significant number in a 100-member legislature. (Read the bill here.)

The Senate sponsors are Holbert and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Carrying it in the House are Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, and Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County, two legislators who haven’t been heavily involved in education issues.

The bill would require districts, boards of cooperative educational services and charters to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts. Written district policies on opting out would have to be provided to parents.

The bill’s summary also says, “The Department of Education and the local education provider cannot penalize the student, the student’s teacher and principal, or the public school that the student attends, and the department cannot penalize the local education provider that enrolls the student, if the parent excuses the student from taking the standardized assessment.”

Current state and federal policy requires that at least 95 percent of students participate in state testing. The federal government requires states to impose a penalty on districts that drop below that level. The penalty Colorado has chosen is a one-step drop in a district’s accreditation rating if participation drops below 95 percent on two or more tests.

While the bill doesn’t specifically reference the accreditation penalty, its no-penalties provisions presumably would prohibit that.

The new bill is in line with recent action by the State Board of Education, which voted in February to absolve districts of any penalties that might be triggered by parents opting their children out of tests this year. (See this story for details.)

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.