Asking permission

State inches closer to federal approval of new testing system

Colorado’s plan to ease the testing burden for 10th graders may well get federal approval, but the state still has to jump through some hoops before the change is a done deal.

The testing reform law passed by lawmakers last spring made several changes to the state’s assessment and accountability system, including a shift in high school standardized testing and a one-year timeout in the rating system for districts and schools.

But lawmakers didn’t necessarily have the last word, given that some changes require U.S. Department of Education approval as part of Colorado’s request for flexibility on requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main education law.

State Department of Education officials have been discussing the changes with the U.S. Department of Education all summer and will present the proposed request to the State Board of Education for its approval on Wednesday.

“We’ve been going back and forth to make sure we know their issues” before going to the State Board, said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s interim associate commissioner of accountability, performance and support. After the board takes action the request will be submitted to Washington, but state education officials still will have work to do.

Here’s a rundown of the status of key issues, based on the draft flexibility application and on explanations provided by Pearson.

High school testing

There’s a little bad news and some good news here.

Legislative backers of the testing reform law, House Bill 15-1323, hoped that the results of PARCC language arts and math tests given in 9th grade could be use to fulfill federal requirements for giving those tests once in the high school years.

Pearson said that after talking to federal officials, the state concluded such use of 9th grade tests to meet federal requirements “wasn’t an option for us.” (Colorado has tested 9th graders for years, but the federal government defines high school as grades 10-12.)

The good news is that federal education officials are open to use of a different 10th grade test. “They said that should work,” Pearson said. But here’s where the hoops come in. The feds want assurances that a new test would be aligned to state academic content standards and want to see a detailed implementation plan. She said the state has 30-45 days to come up with that plan.

The goal of the testing law was to reduce the testing burden on 10th graders by allowing them to take a college readiness test that takes less time than PARCC tests. The law requires the state education department to seek competitive bids for both that test and an 11th grade test. (The ACT test has been given to all high school juniors for several years.)

Timeout for school and district ratings

The testing law requires that the upcoming school year will be a time-out year for accreditation ratings. No new ratings will be announced this fall, meaning schools and districts will retain the ratings they were assigned at the end of 2014. Test scores and student growth data derived from scores are a major part of the ratings.

“They’ve allowed that for other states, so that should not be an issue for them,” Pearson said.

Alternative tests and accountability

A much-debated section of the testing law allows districts or groups of districts to create pilot programs to try out new tests and accountability systems, the hope being to eventually find something to replace the current systems.

The state’s draft application doesn’t include any requests on this issue, but the federal education department has made it clear that students participating in pilot programs also would have to take current state tests for two years, Pearson said.

That could be a disincentive for districts to propose pilots. One group of rural school districts, the Rural Innovation Alliance, has expressed interest in launching a pilot, but that work is in its very early stages.

Opting out of tests

The draft application doesn’t include any request related to penalties for schools and districts that fail to meet federal requirements that 95 percent of students participate in tests.

Test refusal became a hot issue in Colorado starting last fall, when the statewide participation rate on 12th grade science and social studies tests was about 82 percent.

In February, the state board passed a resolution stating districts shouldn’t be penalized for low participation, and test refusal was debated in the legislature last spring. A separate out-out bill died, and HB 15-1323 contains language that clarifies how districts should handle parents who want to opt out.

And spring test participation in major districts generally fell below 95 percent, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found (see story).

Whether districts or the state ultimately will be penalized for lower participation rates is unclear. State law penalizes districts for low participation by lowering their accreditation ratings. But because the accreditation rating system is on hold for a year, there isn’t expected to be any immediate impact from last spring’s widespread test refusals.

Teacher evaluations

Federal officials have raised questions about recent state board approval of an innovation application from the small Holyoke school district in northeastern Colorado. That innovation plan gives the district wide flexibility in meeting the state requirement that 50 percent of teacher’s evaluation be based on student academic growth data. (See details on the Holyoke plan in this document.)

“We have to give them more information” about the Holyoke plan and whether it meets the intent of state evaluation law, said Katy Anthes, the CDE interim associate commissioner.

English language learners

Various changes in testing of some English language learners are included in HB 15-1323. The U.S. Department of Education wants Colorado to do further work on a couple of those, Pearson said.

What’s next

The state board has gained a reputation for unpredictability since two new members joined in January. (A third new member was appointed over the weekend to fill a vacancy.) A majority of the board has been critical of PARCC tests and the Common Core State Standards. So Wednesday’s discussion of the waiver application bears watching.

Once the state files its waiver application – and answers other questions from the federal education department – it’s hard to say when Washington will make a final, formal decision on the application. The timeline is unclear, Pearson said.

Theoretically, federal rejection of Colorado’s flexibility application could threaten federal education funds for the state. But there’s a long bureaucratic process that would have to happen. And the rules for state-federal education relations could change if the U.S. Senate and House reach agreement on a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Talks on how to reconcile competing bills are expected to resume when Congress returns from its summer recess.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.