Between a PARCC and a hard place

PARCC test scores set stage for more debate on Colorado education policies

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Underwhelming scores on Colorado’s first PARCC exams surprised few and hardened longstanding positions among both supporters and opponents of the new tests, setting the stage for another round of debates over academic standards, testing and accountability.

The results released Thursday only provided state-level data. The release of district- and school-level scores in December will provide a much deeper look at student performance.

Those results — and how parents, school districts and others respond to them — likely will influence how state legislators and other policymakers approach key education issues next spring.

“I think the bottom line is that until we have an assessment tool and standards parents have confidence in, we’re going to continue to see high levels of opt out and a high level of opposition from students, parents and teachers that these annual assessments are suspect,” said state Sen. Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker and member of the Senate education committee.

This week’s release is a milestone in a multi-year effort to develop and enact tougher academic standards, introduce next-generation tests to see how students measure up, and use that data to evaluate teachers and school systems.

But those efforts have been circumvented by a lack of trust from vocal groups of families and teachers who believe the new standards and tests are eroding Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools.

Concerns about data collection and usefulness of the tests also have been flashpoints.

Additionally, the state’s superintendents, especially those in rural Colorado, have pushed back on the system. They claim the state hasn’t properly funded its schools and want to be measured by more than just state tests.

To address some of those concerns, the General Assembly passed testing reform legislation that reduced the number of tests in high school and limited the use of data in school accreditation and teacher evaluations for a year.

“It’s very clear to me that lawmakers, the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education are making a good-faith effort to understand and respond to the concerns of our larger community,” said Peter Hilts, the chief education officer of Falcon District 49 in Colorado Springs. “To me, that’s oxygen to re-establish credibility.”

But Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she believes even more parents will raise concerns after they receive individual results for their students.

“I think parents, despite the warning that these results are just a baseline, they’ll look at the results and lose confidence in terms of whether this is a good test,” she said. “Parents will look at the results and weigh whether it gives them valuable information on their students versus what they hear from their students and teachers.”

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of education advocacy groups, said while some parents might not like the results of the tests, that’s not a good reason to upend the system.

“Inevitably there will be people who use the scores to push back on the tests,” she said. “But we can’t get mad at the tests. Getting upset with the test itself is not going to change the outcome for kids.”

State officials speaking this week to the State Board of Education pointed to comparable results between PARCC and other tests — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth and eighth graders, and the ACT, given to 11th graders.

That “allows us to have confidence” in the PARCC scores, said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s executive director of assessments.

It’s too early to know how parent frustration or support will play out at the General Assembly next spring, especially during an election year.

But given the high opt-rates from last spring, school officials and lawmakers may find themselves in a precarious position next legislative session.

Some argue low participation demonstrates a lack of confidence in the system, and that it should be scrapped.

“I don’t think there is anything PARCC can do to [earn] my trust because I don’t believe in high-stakes test,” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who has pushed for more data privacy legislation and testing reform at the Capitol.

However, starting over with an entirely new testing system would cost millions more dollars the state doesn’t have and throw classrooms across the state into chaos.

“We need some time without upheaval and disruption,” Falcon 49’s Hilts said. “I think the system needs to stay at least one more cycle. We need to be able to connect two dots. I would rather work with a system I know, to optimize a system, than to change systems every two years.”

Given public support from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, PARCC isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. And there is enough support from the teachers union, the state’s superintendents and advocacy organizations to keep the Colorado Academic Standards in place, at least until 2018 when state law requires a review.

More immediately, battles likely loom over how tests are used to rate schools and evaluate teachers.

“We’ll see bills on that,” said state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “… There are going to be bills this year to get rid of everything.”

Both the state’s school accreditation system and educator effectiveness law were passed with bipartisan support in 2010. There have been multiple attempts to overturn or seriously weaken both.

Kerr, who said he favors tweaks to both, cautioned: “We shouldn’t throw all the work we’ve done during the last four or five years out and start all over.”

Bills are also likely to propose changes on how the state measure schools and school districts, state officials and a group of rural schools already are working to find possible alternatives.

A Department of Education-convened committee already is exploring options. And more than a dozen rural school districts calling themselves the Rural Innovation Alliance will pitch a final version of an accountability system to the State Board of Education in December.

“We’re not running from accountability,” said Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo-Merino school district east of Greeley. “The system we’re creating is holding me more accountable than the old system. It includes multiple pieces of information rather than one assessment that kids don’t care about.”

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2.5 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

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.