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.

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.