Testing backlash

Tens of thousands of Colorado students opted out of PARCC tests last spring, new data shows

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

More than 65,000 Colorado students were held out of last spring’s PARCC tests by their parents, according to newly released data that for the first time documents the strength of the so-called opt-out movement in the state.

Roughly 1 in 10 Colorado students skipped the math and English assessments as a result of parent refusals.

Test-taking rates were high with young students, began to sink in higher grades and plummeted among high schoolers, many of whom saw little value in sitting for yet more standardized tests as they prepared for the next chapters in their lives.

While test participation by elementary school students exceeded 95 percent, student opt-out rates reached 31 percent on 11th grade math tests and 25 percent on all 10th grade math scores.

Across all grade levels and in both English and math, white students were far more likely than their black and Latino classmates to miss the tests as a result of parental refusals.

At a press briefing Thursday, interim education commissioner Elliot Asp acknowledged a concern about how representative the scores are in higher grades that saw large number of parental refusals, most likely in affluent areas.

Colorado was portrayed as one of the epicenters of the opt-out movement last spring, but until now no firm numbers were available about the scope of the phenomenon.

Anti-PARCC sentiment was fueled by protests the previous fall of state science and social studies tests that saw mass refusals from students in mostly affluent, high-performing suburban school districts.

Data Center | Search our 2015 PARCC opt-out database here.

More granular detail about opt-outs in Colorado will become available Dec. 11, when state officials are expected to release test results and participation rates of individual districts and schools.

Only the state-level picture was available in Thursday’s release, which showed most Colorado students well short of where they need to be in mastering English and math academic standards.

The tens of thousands of opt-outs all but certainly drove down Colorado’s numbers, although to what extent is not known.

In all, 65,858 students in grades 3 through 11 missed PARCC English tests as a result of parental refusals, state data shows. The total was 47,852 students in grade 3 through 10 in the math exams. Presumably most parents who refused to allow their children to take PARCC did so for both tests. The refusal rates for both subjects closely mirrored each other.

Thousands more Colorado students missed the exams, without their parents or guardians officially opting them out. Those students could have been absent for other reasons — such as illness — or may have skipped out of protest without saying so.

The total participation rate was 82 percent for the English tests in all grades, and 85 percent for the math tests.

Ilana Spiegel, a Cherry Creek School District parent who served on a state task force that recommended reforms to state testing, said the high number of opt-outs seriously called into question the validity of the PARCC scores.

The movement to skip the tests includes a number of motivations, she said, including people upset with standardized testing in general, the PARCC tests in particular, or using the tests to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable.

“I think you will continue to see more (opt-outs) as people say they don’t want this to be the new normal,” Spiegel said.

Testing reduction and opting out were hot topics during the 2015 legislative session. An assessment bill was passed – among other changes seniors won’t be tested this fall – but a measure to codify parent opt-out rights died in a House committee.

Test participation rates are important because the U.S. Department of Education requires 95 percent test participation. In Colorado, schools and districts can see their accreditation ratings downgraded if they fail to meet that benchmark on two or more tests.

The state board, however, voted earlier this year not to penalize districts that don’t meet participation requirements this year — an issues central to the state’s request for flexibility from the No Child Left Behind federal education law.

A Chalkbeat Colorado canvassing of the state’s 20 largest districts last summer found only five that provided responses tested enough students on PARCC to meet the 95 percent bar.

The following graphic documents opt-out rates from English language arts tests …

PARCC opt out rates by grade and race

 

measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Read the letter in its entirety below.

Digging in

We read all 279 pages of reports about grade changes in Memphis. Here are five big takeaways.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
At least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant High School shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade alterations, according to a report.

Reports detailing how grades were falsified at Trezevant High School have called into question whether grade changes happening at other Memphis high schools are legitimate.

Shelby County Schools released the results last week of a six-month investigation into how grades are handled at all 41 high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. The probe launched after a new Trezevant principal reported inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts at his school in September 2016.

We read all 279 pages of the reports by legal and accounting firms hired to look into the matter. Here are five takeaways:

1. Some of the allegations have merit.

Complaints that some grades had been changed on transcripts at Trezevant High ring true, according to the report, and there’s cause for suspicion at some other high schools, too.

A team of investigators led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton said at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade changes.

But Trezevant might not be alone. A separate report by a North Carolina accounting firm found a high rate of grade changes at six other high schools within Shelby County Schools. The average number of grade changes across all high schools was 53, but Trezevant had 461 and Kirby logged 582 between 2012 and 2016. A deeper probe into those schools has been ordered.

2. District leaders weren’t caught totally off guard

While expressing surprise at the findings, district administrators began building in safeguards to prevent illicit grade changes months before Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported finding discrepancies. Under a 2016 change, Shelby County Schools began requiring all teachers to use the same electronic grading database known as SMS.

“The District implemented this policy in an effort to effectuate a uniform and consistent method for grade entry which was designed to ensure truthful grading data,” the report said. “As an additional safeguard, SCS also required school principals to implement grading protocols aimed at ensuring the accuracy of the grades that teachers entered into SMS.”

Additionally, Mackin told investigators that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin “informed him that there was an ‘adult culture problem’ and ‘a financial mess’ that needed to be ‘cleaned up’ at Trezevant.”

And this week, Hopson said rumors of grade-changing have been floating around for years.

“As a Memphian, who went to school here, far back as high school, I would always hear rumors of people changing people’s grades,” he told reporters. “That’s persisted for a long period of time.”

3. Grade floors and grade tampering aren’t the same thing.

Around the same time that Mackin turned over evidence of falsified grades, he implemented a “grade floor” policy in which Trezevant students don’t receive grades below a certain threshold.

So if a student was failing a class, Mackin discouraged teachers from giving that student a grade below 60 percent because “there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote in an email to then-supervisor Tonye Smith-McBride. Such low grades would contribute to a lack of student motivation and behavior issues, he argued.

Mackin told investigators that he was referring to future grades, but the timing of his directive appeared to contribute to confusion about grading policies at Trezevant, making some teachers think that their principal was instructing them to retroactively change failing grades to passing ones.

Trezevant isn’t alone in having grade floors. Hopson said other schools have similar practices and that he would like a uniform policy on the issue. Stanton’s report makes that recommendation.

4. Investigators found no evidence to support other complaints that were not about academics.

Mackin’s six-page resignation letter on June 1 accused Shelby County Schools of a cover-up and said that he was being painted as a scapegoat for questionable finances at Trezevant.

“Our investigation has determined that no cover up occurred,” the report read, adding that investigators found no evidence that Mackin was “wrongfully targeted” either as the district looked into finances.

In fact, the report noted that, in several public statements, district leaders hailed Mackin for unearthing suspicious activity on grades. As for a cover-up, Hopson alerted the State Department of Education in a timely matter that the district was conducting an internal review into Mackin’s concerns.

Investigators also found no evidence to support Mackin’s allegations that Trezevant’s football coach mis-reported the school’s enrollment to state athletic officials and that his supervisor had sexually harassed him.

5. There’s still lots of questions to be answered.

The accounting firm hired to review transcript changes at Memphis high schools found that 10 schools had more than 200 instances from 2012 to 2016. However, the review team could not determine if any were fraudulent and concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Investigators also were hampered from getting to the truth at Trezevant without the subpoena power that compels witnesses to speak up.

For example, investigators could not locate several people that Mackin claimed had evidence that would incriminate football coach Teli White, who has since been fired, regarding allegations that he paid student-athletes. They also could not search White’s email or bank accounts to look into allegations of financial fraud.

Hopson told reporters this week that his administration is considering turning over a list of former school administrators to Shelby County’s district attorney, who would have subpoena power in the matter. The superintendent, who is an attorney, said the findings of the first external review may merit a criminal investigation.

The full report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman is available here.

The full Ogletree Deakins report is available here.