big testing

Colorado scores on “nation’s report card” decline but stay above national scores

Colorado students did worse this year on the test known as “the nation’s report card” than they did the last time it was administered two years ago, according to data released Wednesday. But the state’s scores are still better than national averages.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a set of reading and math tests given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in each state. Earlier this year, 4,500 Colorado students spent one hour each taking one of the tests.

On the fourth-grade math tests, 43 percent of Colorado students scored proficient or better, down from 50 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade math tests, 37 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 42 percent two years ago.

On the fourth-grade reading tests, 39 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 41 percent in 2013. On the eighth-grade reading tests, 38 percent of students scored proficient or better, down from 40 percent two years ago.

Most national scores, with the exception of fourth-grade reading, dipped as well but the declines weren’t as steep. However, Colorado education officials said the decreasing scores aren’t cause for concern.

“If we start seeing declines over a period of time — if we see scores dip again in 2017 — it becomes a little more alarming,” said Will Morton, director of assessment administration for the Colorado Department of Education. “Right now, with a single-year dip, I wouldn’t be too concerned about it yet.”

HOW DO COLORADO’s 2015 SCORES COMPARE TO NATIONAL SCORES?

U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams since the early 1990s in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.

Many states have adopted or are developing new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the country. But the NAEP tests are not officially aligned with the standards adopted by Colorado and more than 40 other states. Called the Common Core standards, they detail what students should know in reading and math.

By the 2013-2014 school year, the Common Core standards were in effect in all Colorado schools. The state also rolled out new tests that align with them. Students took the reading and math tests, known as PARCC, for the first time last spring.  The state is scheduled to release the results in November.

“When we look at tests as a measurement for student success — and they’re only one way to measure student success — those tests, which are taken by all students … are what we really look at,” said Dana Smith, interim chief communications officer for CDE.

HOW HAVE MATH SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

But officials said NAEP serves a purpose, too, in that it provides a glimpse into how Colorado students are performing compared to students across the country. Colorado ranks in the middle: Its scores were 23rd highest in fourth-grade math, 17th highest in eighth-grade math, 23rd highest in fourth-grade reading and 18th highest in eighth-grade reading.

“Overall, we’re about where we would expect to be,” Morton said, adding that “if you look at it on a bell curve, we’re in the middle of that bell curve toward the higher end.”

Colorado’s scores have generally improved over the years, while achievement gaps between white and minority students and low-income and non-low-income students have stayed the same. This year, Colorado’s scores did not improve. Morton and Smith were hesitant to speculate as to why, but they noted the differences between NAEP and the Common Core.

NAEP may not be testing what students are learning in their classrooms, they said. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research found that the similarity between the NAEP math tests and the Common Core is “reasonable,” but there are gaps. For example, the study said it appears that “a notable amount” of middle-school math content recommended by the Common Core is not part of the NAEP test.

“As our teachers continue to teach to our Colorado standards,” Morton said, “those differences between what NAEP is designed to test versus what our teachers are being asked to teach — those differences may be highlighted.” But it’s too early to tell for sure, he said.

“Until we have more years of implementation, we can’t really tell if this is an implementation dip or a fundamental difference between our standards and the blueprint of the NAEP test,” Morton said.

HOW HAVE READING SCORES CHANGED OVER 10 YEARS?

NAEP officials took a similar view of the scores, which stayed stagnant or declined in most states.

“One downturn does not a trend make,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP tests.

“It’s not a multi-year trend we’re seeing,” added Bill Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the framework for the NAEP tests. He referenced “curricular uncertainty” in American classrooms and said experts have suggested that “slight declines” often precede improvements.

The NAEP tests are not meant to be tied to a specific curriculum, Bushaw said. However, he predicted that the national board would take another look at the framework in light of this year’s scores and reports such as the one from the American Institutes for Research.

In Colorado, officials said that while NAEP is helpful, it’s just one piece of the overall testing puzzle — and one that’s based on a small sampling of the state’s nearly 900,000 students.

“We don’t get too upset when we see small gains or losses,” Morton said.

Chalkbeat Tennessee reporter Grace Tatter contributed information to this report.

Data source: National Assessment of Educational Progress 

Graphics by: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

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.