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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.