Test anxiety

Testing opt-out bill gets final Senate approval

Updated 9:45 A.M. April 7 – The Senate voted 28-7 Tuesday morning to pass the bill designed to protect parents’ right to opt students out of state standardized tests.

There were a few minutes of final debate before the vote on Senate Bill 15-223. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, again warned about the bill’s impact on school and district accountability. “We overreached dramatically … we will eliminate any meaningful information” about performance, he said. Supporting the bill is “a vote against transparency and a vote against accountability.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she would vote no, saying, “I want accountability. I want transparency.”

But prime sponsor Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “This bill is not about gutting assessments and evaluations, this bill is not about getting rid of report cards for schools and districts. This bill is about honoring the rights of parents.”

Voting no were Democrats Irene Aguilar of Denver, Mary Hodge of Brighton, John Kefalas of Fort Collins, Johnston, Linda Newell of Littleton and Pat Steadman of Denver. Roberts was the only Republican to vote no.

Although SB 15-223 doesn’t address the core issue of testing burden, it’s the first testing-related bill to reach the floor this session, so it has drawn wide attention.

The hour of preliminary debate on Monday was spirited but one-sided.

Holbert described the bill as a response to the legitimate concerns of parents and an affirmation of their rights.

“Thank you again to the parents of Colorado” for raising the issue, he said. “This is not an encouragement for people to opt out.”

Johnston came to the microphone to oppose the bill.

“I just think it dramatically misses the target,” Johnston said, calling the bill “grandstanding.”

As originally introduced, the bill would have required districts to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts and banned imposing any “penalties” on students, teachers, principals or schools for low test participation.

The issue of defining “penalty” emerged as a key question during committee debate on March 26. Amendments adopted quickly on the floor Monday narrowed that definition.

One clarifies that the bill doesn’t apply to local tests, so if a student declines to take a class final exam that can still affect her grade. A second change specifies that school and district accreditation ratings and educator evaluation levels aren’t defined as penalties, meaning that test scores and student growth data derived from scores could continue to be used for accreditation and evaluation.

Another amendment specifies that schools and districts should make good-faith efforts to have students take the exams and not encourage opting out. And an amendment adopted earlier in the education committee requires districts to inform parents about the purpose of statewide tests, in addition to informing them of their opt-out rights.

Much of Monday’s debate focused on parent pushback against testing.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said he had reservations about the bill but said, “I think we need to respond to the parents who have expressed deep concerns.” The Boulder Valley schools, in Heath’s Senate district, are a hotbed of testing resistence.

Heath referred to an open letter opposing the bill that was distributed by business and education reform groups, saying many of the signers are his friends (read the letter).

Other Democrats, including prime sponsor Nancy Todd of Aurora, Matt Jones of Louisville, Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Minority Leader Morgan Carroll of Aurora supported the bill. Kerr, like Heath, said his vote was reluctant. Carroll said she thought the bill was necessary to reduce the atmosphere of “punishment” in schools.

Johnston came to the microphone a second time to speak against the bill, saying, “I think we spent a lot of time building a fair system” of assessment and accountability. “This is contrary to the spirit of everything we’ve done over the last 10 years.”

Johnston’s argument is that test results based on participation rates of less than the currently required 95 percent of students won’t yield accurate data on school, teacher, and student performance. He said that could undermine the foundation of data that underlies all state education reforms of the last several years. He also warned that the state could lose $360 million in federal education funding for violating federal testing participation requirements.

While the bill has 20 bipartisan sponsors in the Democratic-majority House, it may face a bigger challenge there than in the Senate. And Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, reportedly has serious concerns about the bill. Finally, it’s possible the opt-out bill could be held up or even bypassed as lawmakers turn to and perhaps advance more comprehensive testing measures.

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.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.