Breakthrough

House passes testing compromise bill

Testing bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner (left) watches as House takes a standing vote on an amendment.

The House late Monday gave preliminary approval to a compromise testing measure designed to break the assessment stalemate that has dogged the 2015 session.

The vote came after a full evening’s worth of debate, two party caucuses to discuss the bill and some tense moments for sponsors. But in the end sentiment seemed noticeably in favor of the measure.

Two proposed amendments, one to put stronger opt-out language in the bill and another to give districts more flexibility in choice of ninth grade tests, were defeated on recorded votes.

Earlier in the evening the House and Senate education committees each approved the testing compromise. The Senate won’t hold preliminary floor debate on the second bill until Tuesday, the second-to-the-last day of the legislative session.

Here are the key features of the new plan:

  • CMAS/PARCC testing in language arts and math would continue in grades 3-9. (This would require federal sign-off because grade 9 doesn’t meet federal requirements for giving the tests once in high school.)
  • Statewide science tests would continue to be given once at each level – elementary, middle and high school.
  • The proposal includes no requirement for social studies testing.
  • A college-and-career readiness test like ACT Aspire would be given to 10th grade students. (Such exams take a lot less time than the PARCC tests.)
  • The main ACT test would continue to be given in the 11th grade.
  • Districts would be required to give the 10th and 11th grade tests but students wouldn’t have to take them. (Such tests aren’t subject to federal requirements for student participation.)
  • Parents would have to be notified about their rights to opt students out of tests, and districts would be prohibited from punishing or discriminating against students who don’t take tests.
  • Pilot programs under which districts could experiment with different kinds of tests would be created.
  • There would be limits of use of state test data for educator evaluation in 2014-15 and in future years when such data isn’t available for timely evaluations.

The plan retains language from earlier testing bills that would streamline school readiness and READ Act literacy assessments. It also requires the availability of paper tests if districts request them.

Read a draft of the proposal here.

The compromise came together quickly. “It is the result of some serious work between the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats over the weekend,” Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillion told House Education. Hamner, chair of the committee last year, was named Monday morning by House Democratic leadership to carry the compromise bill.

Procedurally, the new plan was amended into two different bills, making them identical. House Education rewrote Senate Bill 15-257 with the new language and passed it 9-2. Senate Education did the same with House Bill 15-1323 and passed the new version 5-4.

The compromise appears to satisfy education leaders from both parties in both houses, as well as Gov. John Hickenlooper. But the plan definitely does not satisfy activist parent groups and the Colorado Education Association, who had pushed for more dramatic changes. And it didn’t satisfy

Education reform groups have questions about the testing pilot program, which likely will be subject to floor amendments.

checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”

new kids on the block

Meet the newly elected Indianapolis Public Schools board members

Three newcomers were elected Tuesday to the Indianapolis Public Schools board. From left: Susan Collins, Evan Hawkins, and Taria Slack.

In a shakeup of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, two challengers unseated incumbents in Tuesday’s election.

In all, three newcomers will join the school board: retired teacher Susan Collins, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, and federal employee Taria Slack.

Learn more about where the new school board members stand on issues such as the district’s budget woes, school closings, and innovation schools, from their responses to our candidate survey published last month.