Beyond NCLB

Rewrite of federal education law could spur changes to testing, accountability in Colorado

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file

The massive rewrite of federal education law now moving through Congress likely will have little immediate impact in Colorado but eventually could lead to changes in testing, how schools are held accountable and more as states gain more freedom to set their own paths.

“It doesn’t have a significant impact on Colorado, at least in the short term,” said Mary Wickersham, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It allows the states a lot of discretion” in school and district accountability and in interventions for struggling schools, Wickersham said. “All that stuff is left at the discretion of the states.”

If the Senate passes the bill and President Obama signs it, the new landscape will be a familiar one for students, parents, teachers and administrators:

  • Students will continue to take standardized language arts and math tests from third to eighth grade and once in high school.
  • Schools and districts will continue to be rated by the state on the academic performance of their students.
  • Parents and the public will continue to receive reports on those ratings, as well as on the performance of students based on ethnicity, poverty and English language ability.
  • The state and districts will continue to monitor and try to improve the lowest-performing schools.

But three elements of what’s called the Every Student Succeeds Act represent important differences from previous federal law and could lead to changes for Colorado in the future.

State flexibility – The new bill retains many of the broad goals of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which the new measure is intended to replace. But Every Student Succeeds gives states flexibility in setting specific goals and measurements for student achievement and school improvement. “They’re moving to a system that keeps the core principles intact but rejects the one-size-fits-all” model of No Child Left Behind, said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Accountability – The previous law required states to rate schools on “academic” factors, heavily weighted toward test scores. Every Student Succeeds requires states to add at least one “non-academic” factor, things like student and/or educator engagement as measured by surveys, student readiness for the workforce or school climate. States are free to choose which non-academic factors they want to use.

“We’re excited that’s actually required,” interim education Commissioner Elliott Asp told a meeting in Colorado Springs last week. “It requires states to include more than student achievement in the accountability systems.”

The Department of Education recently started studying changes in the accountability and rating system with a work group, and outside groups such as the Student-Centered Accountability Project also are looking at new, broader ways of rating schools and districts.

“We’re on that path,” said Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner. “The timing is pretty good because we’re headed in that direction.” But, she added, “The biggest thing we’re going to have to figure out is that additional indicator.”

Pearson said it hasn’t been determined yet if the Department and the State Board of Education can establish an additional indicator or indicators on their own or if legislative action will be required. The state current accountability system was created by a law passed in 2009.

“The biggest thing is what happens next, what do the rules and regulation look like, what happens at the state level,” Walmer said.

Testing – While Every Student Succeeds leave the testing calendar in place, it does offer the possibility of more flexible testing systems in the future. The bill provides grants states can use to streamline their testing systems, opens the door to use of multiple tests by a state and creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests. Asp highlighted that last provision as a welcome move.

Colorado students are expected to take the PARCC language arts and math tests next spring. There’s not enough time to switch to a new test, Asp told the audience of school board members in Colorado Springs.

But state board chair Steve Durham said, “The odds of continuing with that particular assessment are slim” beyond next year. “But I have only one vote.” A majority of the board is on record as opposing PARCC.

Colorado signed on to the PARCC exams after the legislature passed a law requiring the state to join a multi-state testing group.

The Every Student Succeeds bill maintains the requirement – or perhaps the goal – of 95 percent student participation on statewide tests. But it’s up to states to decide what to do about districts that drop below that level. “The test participation requirement looks a lot like where we are now,” Pearson said. Colorado’s current agreement with the federal government only requires low-participation districts to improve test-taking rates but doesn’t penalize them.

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

The Every Student Succeeds bill runs hundreds of pages and includes a long list of other provisions, many of them technical. Pearson said there are few substantial changes in Title I and other sections involving federal aid for poor students and other special populations. There are new provisions that may provide more aid for rural schools, and Walmer said she’s pleased with a new program for preschool development grants.

The first Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 and was significantly modified in 2001 with passage of NCLB. That version was best known for its annual testing mandate and the requirement that all students reach proficiency by 2013-14.

Despite mounting dissatisfaction with the law in recent years, congressional gridlock stymied efforts to update it until this year.

Frustrated by that lack of congressional action, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Education offered states waivers from NCLB. Colorado obtained a waiver and just had it renewed.

Colorado’s original waiver allowed it to use some of its own systems instead of original NCLB requirements. Those state systems were in place before the waiver, including district and school ratings (2009) and use of student academic growth in teacher evaluations (2011). And Colorado’s statewide testing system, originally called CSAP, was created in 1997, before NCLB was passed.

Wickersham noted that the waiver process gave the U.S. Department of Education considerable power over state policies.

“The bill kind of bends over backwards to restrict the power of the Department of Education to decide what states can do,” she said.

The original NCLB law contained no requirements for teacher evaluation. But evaluation is part of Colorado’s waiver agreement with the federal government. State waivers will end next year if the new bill passes, and Every Student Succeeds leaves the details of evaluation systems up the states.

The new bill passed the House 359-64 last week and is scheduled for a Senate vote Tuesday.

Here are key differences between the current law and its would-be replacement, and how things look in Colorado now:

exclusive

Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.


Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to [email protected]


Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.

Districtwide

School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.

2017

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%

2015

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of charter schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7

2015

School-wide composite Number of charter schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of optional schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10

2015

School-wide composite Number of optional schools
1 7
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.

She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.

“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”

With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.

Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)

Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.

The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.

And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.

“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.

Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.

“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”

Planning for life after Renewal

Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at  P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.

She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.

But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)

Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.

“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.

While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.

“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.

An unclear exit strategy

Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.

This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.

If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.

Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.

“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.

The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.

While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.

“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”

Looking for results

The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.

Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.

City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)

Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.

“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”

Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.

Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.

The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”