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.”


After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

course count

In New York, students of color lack access to advanced coursework, new analysis finds

PHOTO: Emilija Manevska
Student writing on blackboard

If a student lived in a suburban, wealthy school district in New York state last year, her chances of attending a school with six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate were greater than 90 percent.

In New York City – where students are far more likely to be black and Hispanic – a student’s chances of accessing such a rich curriculum plummeted to 18 percent.

That is just one example of how New York’s black and Latino students are denied access to advanced coursework, including math, science, music, and foreign language classes, according to a new analysis of 2017 data released by the New York Equity Coalition, a group of about 20 civic organizations. The lack of access cripples students trying to prepare for college and denies them the chance to take rigorous coursework, the report’s authors argue.

“It should be cause for alarm and action,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, which is part of the coalition and conducted the analysis. “We see this question of access to rich and robust coursework as being essential for New York students.”

In New York City, officials have acknowledged many students of color lack access to advanced courses — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight it. The city has announced initiatives aimed at expanding middle school algebra courses, Advanced Placement classes in high school, and computer science education.

But Education Trust-NY’s new analysis sheds light on the depth of the problem facing the city. It also suggests that simply adding classes will not be enough to enroll more black and Latino students in advanced coursework, since these students are often under-enrolled in these courses even when they are offered at their schools.

The analysis looked at “gatekeeper” courses, which authors say either provide a springboard to higher-level courses or allow students to develop important skills or passions. The courses include middle school algebra and earth science, calculus, physics, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, computer science, advanced foreign language, and music.

Across the board, Education Trust-NY found that students of color in New York state are under-enrolled in these courses compared to their white and Asian peers. For instance, for every 100 New York high school students, about 15 white students and 20 Asian took physics, while only around seven black or Latino students did the same.

The analysis finds two reasons for the lack of enrollment among New York’s black and Latino students. The first is that students of color are more likely to attend schools that do not offer these courses. That problem was particularly acute in the state’s urban centers, including New York City, which enroll a greater share of the state’s black and Hispanic students than other areas in the state.

For instance, the share of New York City schools that offered algebra in middle school and physics, calculus, music, and advanced foreign language in high school was more than 20 percentage points lower than the state average in each case.

Secondly, even if advanced courses are offered in schools, black and Latino students may not enroll in the classes, the analysis finds. For instance, in New York City, 56 percent of students in schools offering calculus last year were Latino or black, while only 35 percent of student enrolled in calculus were Latino or black.

The city is working hard to combat both of these problems, officials say. Since the mayor unveiled his “Equity and Excellence” agenda in 2015, 152 high schools are offering new Advanced Placement courses, teachers have been trained across 550 schools to offer computer science classes, and teachers across 357 elementary schools have received training in the city’s initiative to boost algebra participation.

Additionally, since the 2017 school year, which is the year used in Ed Trust-NY’s analysis, 89 more schools in New York City offer additional Advanced Placement classes, according to city officials. However, it is unclear exactly how many new schools are offering algebra in middle school or computer science classes, they said.

The city also instituted a Lead Higher initiative, aimed at reducing disparities in enrollment among underserved students at schools that already have AP classes.

However, there are some aspects of the city school system that might work against offering more advanced classes in every school. The previous administration split many large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. Since smaller schools may lack the teaching capacity or number of students to justify a wide range of courses, students’ options may be limited.

New York City’s high school system is also extremely stratified by academic achievement. Top schools are allowed to select the city’s high-performing students, while the remaining schools have few students who can complete grade-level work in English and math. As a result, those schools – which disproportionately serve students of color – may lack advanced classes.

Critics may say that the lack of advanced classes is a symptom of a bigger problem: That many black and Latino students have not been prepared for more advanced coursework in their elementary and middle schools. Rosenblum said that may be true in some cases, but there are also many students who are prepared to succeed in advanced classes but are not given the opportunity.

“The research is really clear that vastly more students can succeed in higher-level and advanced courses than are currently in them,” Rosenblum said, adding, “If we want students to be prepared for rigorous courses in high school, we need more rigorous courses to prepare them.”

The analysis also points to another reason that student of color may not be encouraged to pursue advanced coursework: a lack of guidance counselors. Eight percent of black and Latino students attend a middle school without a guidance counselor, which is double the rate of their white peers. In high school, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where there are more than 250 students for every guidance counselor, whereas 27 percent of their white peers do the same.

Rosenblum and others at the New York Equity Coalition have posited several solutions to the problems outlined in their analysis. One suggestion would have students default to a more advanced set of courses that begins with taking algebra in middle school. In this scenario, parents would have to sign a waiver to opt students out of this more challenging path.

Solutions like this have the potential to appeal to those with dueling educational philosophies. On the one hand, it could appeal to those who have been calling for higher educational standards – since it would encourage more advanced coursework. On the other, it does not rely on test scores to achieve those higher standards.

This debate has bubbled to the surface recently in a conversation about New York’s Regents exams, which students typically must pass before graduating. Some argue the tests help make graduation requirements more rigorous, while others say they are a poor way to ensure more students are prepared for college.

State policymakers have signaled they are interested in rethinking graduation requirements and have already carved out exceptions for some students that stray from the traditional path of passing five Regents exams. But they have not yet coupled it with a way to ensure that students remain focused on advanced classes, raising concerns from advocates that they have been dropping standards.

Further, a wide range of politicians and policymakers have called for increased access to rich coursework, including officials at the state education department, de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival Cynthia Nixon.