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.

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.