new measures

What is PARCC? An explainer in advance of Colorado releasing first test scores

On Thursday morning, the state will release the first batch of scores from the PARCC English and math tests Colorado students took this past spring.

Confused about what that means and why it matters?

We’re here to help …

What are the PARCC tests?
PARCC tests are a new set of annual English and math tests that were given to Colorado students for the first time this past spring. Most students took the tests online.

What does PARCC stand for?
PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The partnership part refers to the fact that several states, including Colorado, banded together to develop the tests. In the 2014-15 school year, students in 11 states plus the District of Columbia took them. New York ran a pilot program but didn’t test all students.

What happened to the old tests?
They’re no longer relevant because Colorado changed its learning goals for students.

In 2010, the Colorado State Board of Education adopted what are known as the Common Core Standards. The standards are a set of expectations for what students should know in English and math at the end of each grade. Colorado is one of 43 states, along with the District of Columbia, that use them.

The standards were in effect in all Colorado schools by the 2013-14 school year. Because they include new learning goals for each grade, Colorado needed new tests to measure whether kids are meeting those goals. Hence, the PARCC tests.

Before PARCC, Colorado had tests called CSAP, or Colorado Student Assessment Program, and then TCAP, or Transitional Colorado Assessment Program. The TCAP tests were given to students in 2012, 2013 and 2014 as Colorado transitioned to the Common Core Standards.

So many acronyms.
We know. And here’s another one: CMAS, or Colorado Measures of Academic Success.

CMAS is the acronym for the entire bundle of standardized tests that Colorado students now take. The English and math PARCC tests are just one part of CMAS. The other part is a set of science and social studies tests that were developed by Colorado alone. Those tests were given to students for the first time in the spring of 2014 and again in the spring of 2015.

Here’s a handy umbrella graphic from the Colorado Department of Education that explains the test structure:

CMAS Umbrella Graphic CDE
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education

But the scores this week are just for the English and math tests, right?
Right. The scores for the science and social studies tests already came out. Scoring the English and math tests took longer because they’re new this year. In the future, the state hopes to release the scores before the start of the next school year. So if students take the tests in the spring, the results will hopefully be available by the summer.

How are the PARCC tests different than past tests?
The PARCC tests are supposed to be harder. In addition to measuring whether students know the basics, they’re designed to test skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

The English tests include both reading and writing, as opposed to the way things used to be, with separate tests for each. The questions are different, too. In the past, students might have been given a word and asked to pick a synonym for that word from a list of five choices. The PARCC tests still ask about the meaning of words but in the context of a story, such as in this example from the PARCC website: “What is the meaning of the word dictate as used in paragraph 23?”

The math questions are also more complex. They tend to involve multiple steps that require students to show that they understand the concepts, not just that they know the right answer.

Read some more sample questions here.

Which students took the PARCC tests?
Colorado students in grades three through 11 were tested in English. Math tests were given to students starting in grade three and ending with students who’d completed Algebra II or Integrated Math III. Integrated math is a type of curriculum that blends elements of Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II over the course of three years. Instead of taking Algebra I one year, Geometry the next and Algebra II the next, students take Integrated Math I, II and III.

The exact number of students who took the PARCC tests won’t be released until Thursday. But the state Department of Education says about 1 million tests were given.

Next year, that number will be lower. In May, state lawmakers responded to concerns from parents, teachers and others about too much testing by passing a bill to limit it. Starting next year, only students in grades three through nine will take the English and math PARCC tests. The high school tests will be replaced with college prep and college entrance exams, such as the ACT, although the state hasn’t decided which exams it will use.

Is it the same in other states that are part of PARCC?
Not necessarily. Testing requirements vary from state to state. At a minimum, the federal government requires states to test students in grades three through eight in English and math and once in high school if the states want federal money for things such as supporting students with disabilities and supporting low-income students (and most states do).

But, wait. Can’t parents opt their kids out of PARCC?
Yes. That same bill that state lawmakers passed in May says that parents may excuse their children from taking one or more of the tests. And districts are prohibited from imposing negative consequences on students who opt out.

Which scores will the state be releasing this week?
Statewide test results will be made public at or shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday. The results will include the number of students in each grade who took the tests and how well they did. For instance, the results will show how many third graders met expectations in math and how many met expectations in English. (For more on what that means, keep reading.)

The scores also will be broken down by various subgroups, such as students’ race and ethnicity; whether they qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty; and whether they’re English language learners. So it will be possible to compare how several different subgroups — white, black and Hispanic third-graders, for example — did on the tests.

In addition, the state will release the number of students who opted out.

The results will not include scores for individual school districts, schools or students. Those scores won’t be available until next month because the state is still awaiting and validating the final data. Once the state releases that data, it will be up to the districts and schools to provide parents with individual student score reports. The reports will look something like this.

How are the tests scored?
Each test is worth between 650 and 850 points. Students are given a raw score and then placed into one of five “performance levels” based on that score. Here’s the breakdown:

Level 1 (score of 650 – 699) = Did not meet expectations
Level 2 (score of 700 – 724) = Partially met expectations
Level 3 (score of 725 – 749) = Approached expectations
Level 4 (score of approximately 750 – 800) = Met expectations
Level 5 (score of approximately 800 – 850) = Exceeded expectations

The last two levels are fuzzy because the scores vary from test to test. For example, on the third-grade English test, a score in the range of 810 – 850 would put a student in Level 5. On the eighth-grade math test, the score range for Level 5 is 801 – 850.

Only students in levels 4 and 5 are considered to be on track to enter the next grade — or for high school students, ready for college or a career.

This Colorado Department of Education chart shows the five levels.

Performance Level Chart PARCC CDE
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education

Who set the performance levels?
Panels of teachers, college faculty members and education experts from all of the states that belong to PARCC worked together to determine which scores should correspond to which levels. In August and September, the levels were approved by the PARCC governing board, which is made up of state education chiefs, including Colorado’s commissioner. Those levels needed to be set before the tests could be scored and the results could be released.

Here’s an essay by a Colorado teacher who helped build the PARCC math tests.

How will the scores be used?
This year’s PARCC scores will be used as a baseline to measure future academic growth. Starting next year, districts, schools and teachers will be able to compare scores from year to year to see if the number of students meeting PARCC’s expectations is growing or shrinking — which can help determine whether kids are learning and educators are on the right track.

But it’s not possible to draw those conclusions yet. As such, state lawmakers created a one-year “accountability pause.” Teachers, schools and districts won’t be held accountable for this year’s scores, and the scores won’t be used in evaluations or accreditation decisions.

However, it will be possible to compare Colorado’s baseline scores to the baseline scores of other PARCC states. Those state-to-state comparisons, which provide further context, are considered by some to be one of the advantages of the PARCC system.

So are the other states releasing their scores this week, too?
No. Each state is releasing its scores on its own timeline.

Several states, including Illinois and Ohio, have already released partial or preliminary data. New Jersey and New Mexico are among the states that have released more robust results.

Isn’t it true that some people don’t like PARCC?
Absolutely. The tests have been criticized for being too expensive and taking up too much school time. Other critics don’t like that PARCC is a multi-state consortium that receives federal funding. However, attempts by state lawmakers to withdraw Colorado from PARCC have failed.

When will students take PARCC tests again?
Colorado students are scheduled to take the PARCC tests again in April. That month, some students will also take the state-developed science and social studies tests, and high schoolers will take college prep and entrance exams. In response to backlash about extensive testing time, the PARCC tests will be 90 minutes shorter than they were this past spring.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.