Not quite ready

Issues get aired, but vote delayed on House testing bill

The House Education Committee took testing testimony in the Capitol's new hearing room, which has plenty of space but challenging sight lines.

The House Education Committee Monday evening delayed voting on a bill that would make modest cuts in the state’s standardized testing system, including elimination of most tests in the 11th and 12th grades.

“I am torn at this point about taking action before we attempt to resolve some of these issues,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, before asking that the bill, House Bill 15-1323, be laid over. That puts off any vote on the measure until at least next week.

That decision came after nearly three hours of testimony and committee member questions. The panel didn’t even start on the bill until after 4:30 p.m., a few afters the meeting kicked off.

A major focus of discussion was whether ninth grade students should continue taking state tests in language arts and math. Such assessments aren’t required by the federal government, and the bill proposes dropping them but allowing individual districts to test ninth graders if they want.

A parade of well-orchestrated witnesses from education reform advocacy and business groups mounted a full-court press to urge that mandatory ninth grade testing be maintained. They argued that the data from those tests is needed to maintain the state’s growth model and track students who need academic help.

On the other side, Colorado Education Association lobbyist Julie Whitacre argued that ninth grade testing isn’t necessary and that social studies tests should be dropped. The CEA also would like language added to the bill to create a three-year time-out in use of student academic growth data for teacher evaluations.

For this school year districts have the option of whether to use growth in evaluations.

Despite more than a year of rising public concern and policymaker debate about the amount of state testing, House Bill 15-1323 is the first testing reduction bill to have a full committee hearing, which was held on the 90th of the 2015 session’s 120 days.

(A more narrowly focused bill related to opting out of state tests has advanced further and won preliminary Senate approval Monday. See story here.)

Although 11 testing-related bills have been introduced this year, statehouse attention currently is focused on two measures, HB 15-1323 and Senate Bill 15-257.

The House bill, sponsored by nine of House Education’s 11 members, is considered the more limited of the two bills and is somewhat more attractive to interest groups that want minimal tinkering with state assessments.

The Senate measure is backed by seven of the nine members of Senate Education and includes provisions that would cut back on state testing but also create ways for districts to ultimately use local tests in place of state assessments. Some school district interests lean toward that bill.

The Senate bill, and a handful of other testing measures, are set for Senate Education consideration on Thursday afternoon.

The bigger question may be not whether Buckner and cosponsor Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, can reach interest-group compromise on HB 15-1323 but whether they can reach agreement with the Senate.

Neither bill would pull Colorado out of the PARCC testing system or the Common Core State Standards. Conservative Republican in both chambers want to do that, but those ideas appear to be dead in the water for this session.

Get more information on the two bills in this story, and see the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this article for links to detailed information about all 2015 testing bills.

Here are the key provisions of HB 15-1323 as it was introduced:

  • State language arts and math tests would be given only in grades three-eight and 10
  • Science and social studies would be given once each in elementary, middle, and high school
  • The state can’t require any tests in 11th and 12th grades, except for the ACT test
  • Local districts can choose to use state tests in those grades, and in ninth grade
  • The state would have seek federal approval to allow non-English tests for up to five years for ELL students
  • Paper tests must be made available at district request
  • If a READ Act early literacy test is given in first 60 days of school, the literacy section of the school readiness test doesn’t have to be given
  • K-3 students reading at grade level don’t have to be tested again in the same year
  • Paper early literacy tests must be available
  • Makes other administrative changes to school readiness tests
  • Repeals existing requirements for postsecondary and workforce readiness assessments

The bill follows many – but not all – of the recommendations of the Standards and Assessments Task Force, which studied testing last fall and made recommendations to the legislature. See this story for details on the task force report.

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.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”