The last day

Testing agreement comes in session’s final hours

The debate on testing, the most divisive education issue of the 2015 legislature, ended on the session’s last day with self-congratulatory speeches and strong votes for a compromise bill.

What matters for kids and parents is that the total time a student spends testing while moving from kindergarten to 12th grade will drop from about 137 hours to 102 hours, according to bill supporters. The biggest reduction will be in the high school years, and the changes go into effect for the 2015-16 school year. (See this chart for details by grade.)

There’s plenty of grousing that the bill doesn’t go far enough. But in the end it was more than good enough for the legislature, judging by the tone of Wednesday’s speeches. House Bill 15-1323 passed the Senate 30-5 and the House 55-8 after that chamber agreed to final Senate amendments. (See the bottom of this story for the no votes in each house.)

The need to produce a testing bill and to avoid the political embarrassment of not passing one proved too compelling as the session drew to a close.

As usual, when a contentious issue is about to be decided, most lawmakers emphasized the positive in closing speeches.

In the 35-member Senate, 13 senators spoke for an hour on the bill.

“This has been a long journey and a lot of hard work,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and a key figure in crafting the compromise.

Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, was the most effusive: “Something magic happened here.”

Representatives were brief, with only half-a-dozen members speaking for less than half an hour.

“On the very last day of the session we did it,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon and a prime sponsor.

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson and one of bill’s strongest GOP supporters, noted, “It’s probably been one of the more difficult bills this session. … It lightens the load where appropriate. It still maintains transparency and accountability.”

What the testing bill does

The compromise testing-reduction bill successfully walks a fine line between earlier proposals from the House and Senate.

The final plan makes changes both obvious and subtle in the Colorado Measures of Academic Success system, and its final shape remains to be determined, given that parts of the bill require sign-off by the federal government.

Two things definitely aren’t in the bill. It doesn’t withdraw Colorado from the Common Core State Standards nor from the PARCC multi-state tests. That’s a sore point for some legislators and activist parent groups. And the bill doesn’t reduce testing enough for the Colorado Education Association.

Here are the details on the compromise’s key points and how negotiators reconciled the differences between the two chambers.

High school testing – This was the big point of division from the start, and the recent expansion of CMAS tests into the 11th and 12th grades was the main spark for parent agitation and students opting out in the past year.

The federal government requires one set of language arts and math tests be given in high school. The House and Senate bills assumed that requirement would be met by 10th grade testing, but the two chambers disagreed over whether 9th grade tests should continue. Moving away from the assumption that full 10th grade testing was needed was a key factor in breaking the deadlock.

The compromise keeps the 9th grade tests but replaces the 10th grade CMAS exams with a college and workforce readiness test like the ACT Aspire. This test takes about three hours, compared to 11 for the two CMAS tests. Backers of the idea hope Aspire or something similar will be more relevant and therefore more attractive to students. Students will continue to take the main ACT test in the 11th grade.

Because the federal government doesn’t recognize 9th grade as part of high school, this provision will need federal approval.

One subtlety here is that because the two ACT-type tests aren’t part of the federally dictated CMAS system, student opt-out rates wouldn’t affect district accreditation ratings. Compromise supporters described this with the zen-like explanation that the tests are “not mandatory and not optional.” Districts have to offer them, but students don’t have to take them. The state would have to put the 10th and 11th grade tests to competitive bid every five years.

The current schedule of giving science tests one time each in elementary, middle and high school will continue, but it’s left up to the Department of Education to decide in which grades.

Opting out – The bill guarantees parents the right to opt students out of tests and that students won’t suffer any consequences or punishment for doing so. It also specifies that districts cannot discourage students from taking tests. Opting out was a hot topic at the Capitol this year, and variations of opting out language were offered in several other bills, including a stand-alone measure passed by the Senate but killed in a House committee.

Pilot programs – There’s been a push by some lawmakers and districts for the ability to give their own tests rather than the CMAS/PARCC tests. Current federal law requires a single test be given to all students in a state. The Senate and House were way apart on this issue.

The compromise allows any district or group of districts to apply to the state for approval to “pilot” new tests. Eventually two tests would be chosen from those pilots. And in the end the Department of Education – with legislative approval – could use one new set of tests statewide. (There are a lot of ifs in this plan, including at least three separate federal sign-offs.)

Timeouts – Both original bills had various provisions to protect schools and districts from accountability consequences of new test results and to change how growth data derived from results is used in teacher evaluations.

The compromise creates a one-year accountability timeout for school and districts in 2015-16. Teachers get a break on use of state data for their 2014-15 evaluations. In future years districts don’t have to use state growth data if it comes in too late to meet deadlines for finishing evaluations. Late data would be used in subsequent years’ evaluations.

Paper & pencil – The original Senate version proposed allowing both parents and districts to request paper tests. The House would have given that option only to districts. The compromise allows individual schools or districts to request paper exams. The goal here was to avoid having some students in the same class taking online tests while other kids used paper versions.

Social studies – These tests now are given once in elementary, middle and high school. They rolled out only a year ago and as such were part of the uproar about “over-testing.” A separate measure that also passed Wednesday, Senate Bill 15-056, creates a compromise. Instead of being given to every student in the three grades every year, tests will be given in selected schools. The goal is to have the test given in an individual school every three years.

There are several issues that weren’t disputed by the two houses and that were carried into the compromise plan. Those include:

  • Requirements for notification of parents about the purposes and uses of testing and about testing schedules.
  • Language increasing the number of years that native-language tests can be given to ELL students and recently arrived immigrants. (This also requires a federal waiver.)
  • Streamlining of school readiness and READ Act literacy assessments, primarily eliminating some duplicative tests.

Many play a role in compromise, now and in future

The final testing bill was crafted to meet an iron law of Capitol math: To become law, a bill needs at least 33 House votes, 18 in the Senate, and one governor’s signature.

As noted above, the testing measure adds a fourth party to the discussion – the U.S. Department of Education.

Colorado’s overall system of tests and accountability is approved through what’s referred to as a “waiver” granted by the department. That agreement allows the state to do some things its own way rather than strictly follow the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Changes in the state system by either the legislature or the state education department have to be reported to Washington through a process that – confusingly – also is called a “waiver.”

If the federal education department doesn’t like such individual changes, it could revoke the state’s overall waiver, potentially creating all sorts of administrative problems for CDE and districts. If a state is out of compliance with federal requirements it theoretically faces the loss of some federal funds, primarily grants to low-income students.

Hammering out an agreement

Lawmakers had a hard time all session coming to agreement on testing. Legislative leaders started moving things along last week.

Members of both education committees and other lawmakers met in the speaker’s office one evening last week to hash things out.

A smaller group of legislative leaders convened last weekend to keep the momentum going. Lobbyists and leaders from the full spectrum of education interest groups also were involved.

The plan started to take final shape at a meeting of about half-a-dozen lawmakers who gathered around the press table in the House chambers last Sunday afternoon.

But there was nervousness about the deal until the end. Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, told his colleagues he was unsure as recently as Tuesday that things would come together.

“It’s been the most challenging work I’ve done,” Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, told Chalkbeat.

How they voted

Voting no in the House were GOP Reps. Perry Buck of Windsor, Justin Everett of Littleton, Steve Humphrey of Windsor, Janak Joshi of Colorado Springs, Gordon Klingenschmitt of Colorado Springs, Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, Kim Ransom of Highlands Ranch and Lori Saine of Firestone.

Voting no in the Senate were Republican Sens. David Balmer of Centennial, Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Tim Neville of Littleton and Laura Woods of Thornton.

A separate but virtually identical measure, Senate Bill 15-257, was allowed to die as the session adjourned. It was the original Senate proposal, but both it and HB 15-1323 were amended earlier this week to be the same.

See this staff summary of bill as of May 5.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety: