opting out

Students in pockets of rural, suburban Colorado drove down PARCC participation

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

By at least one measure, the epicenter of anti-testing backlash in Colorado last spring was an isolated rural community where distrust of government runs deep and the school superintendent gets an earful at the Superette coffee shop if things aren’t going right in the classroom.

The Dolores County School District, based in Dove Creek in southwestern Colorado, had the lowest participation on PARCC English and math tests of any Colorado district — 8.4 percent. Just 13 of 155 students in the farm-rich area near the Utah border took the new tests aligned with the Common Core, according to data made public Friday.

When Colorado gained notice last spring as fertile ground for a movement opting out of state standardized tests, much of the attention fell on protests at high-performing, wealthy suburban districts.

District-level PARCC data released Friday  showed that was warranted — a total of more than 30,000 students from the Boulder Valley, Douglas County and Cherry Creek districts sat out the tests.

But when it came to low participation rates, rural districts led the way. A Chalkbeat analysis found 18 of the 20 districts with the lowest participation rates are rural districts, from all corners of the state.

In other words, the more affluent suburban districts with large student populations had far more students skip the tests, but a greater proportion of students at those rural districts opted out of them.

20 districts with lowest participation

Chalkbeat’s calculations took into account participation in English language arts tests. Participation rates on math tests were similar.

Generally, elementary school test participation was high and participation steadily decreased in higher grades, sinking in high school. High school testing for 2016 was curtailed in testing reform legislation passed this year.

Low participation in state tests typically carry consequences for school and districts, but not this year.

Federal law requires at least 95 percent participation on language arts and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. In Colorado, districts that fall short have faced a one-step reduction in their accreditation rating in years past.

But a testing reform law passed last spring created a one-year timeout in the accountability system. The U.S Department of Education’s recent approval of Colorado’s waiver from federal education laws also means Colorado school districts won’t face the loss of accreditation. However, districts with substandard test participation will be required to spell out plans for boosting it.

Just 32 school districts reported their overall PARCC participation at 95 percent or above, according to a Chalkbeat review.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural School Alliance, said opt-out momentum in rural districts gained steam after a resolution last spring from the state Board of Education saying districts and schools shouldn’t be punished for low participation. Word travels fast in small communities, she said, and there’s a “lack of buy-in” in the testing and accountability system.

“These people live in districts where their accreditation rating has changed from year to year because one family moves out,” Murphy said.

In Dolores County, Superintendent Bruce Hankins was a vocal opponent of the tests, arguing the results come far too late to inform classroom instruction and are too flawed to use for accountability. Hankins made it easy on parents, providing a form letter on the district website for opting students out of tests. If he needs to be held accountable, he said, it’s going to happen at the local coffee shop.

“Parents are tired of their kids being stressed out over a test that doesn’t mean anything to them,” Hankins said. “They are tired of teachers being beat up when they are busting their butts to do what is best for kids. And they’re tired of districts and schools being labeled failures when they know they’re not.”

Concerns also were voiced, Hankins said, about the government unnecessarily collecting data on students. The district is about 93 percent white and has no English language learners. Hankins said many families qualify for subsidized lunches but won’t apply because they don’t think their income is anyone’s business.

A number of rural Colorado districts, including the Dolores County district, are working toward developing an alternative accountability system that moves beyond using state tests as the primary measure.

Not all rural districts harbored anti-testing sentiment. Three Colorado school districts reported 100 percent PARCC participation, and all were rural: Prairie, Genoa-Hugo and Stratton. A number of other rural districts reported participation numbers well above the state average.

Participation rates in Colorado’s 10 largest districts

No district had more students skip the tests than Douglas County. More than 13,700 students did not participate, putting the south suburban district’s participation rate at about 70 percent. District leadership has been sharply critical of the state testing system.

“Parents have patiently waited for the standardized testing movement to get to the right amount of tests and the right tests and the right experience for their children, and I think their level of frustration has steadily grown because they haven’t seen movement in the right direction in their opinion,” said Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen.

The participation rate in the Boulder Valley School District was even lower — 67 percent. The highest opt-out rates were at the two high schools in Boulder where protests of earlier state social studies and science tests attracted widespread attention and likely helped fuel the PARCC opt-out movement.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger said his sense is that parents weren’t targeting PARCC, but rather were reacting to what they perceive to be the burdensome nature of state assessments as a whole.

“It was their way of saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Messinger said.

The state also documented cases in which parents refused to allow their children to take the tests. However, districts were not required to turn over documentation of refusals, so the picture is incomplete. Others may have skipped the test in protest without filling out forms.

Backers of the tests argue they are critical to ensuring the state has an accurate picture of student achievement, especially with poor and minority children.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the state’s academic standards and aligned tests, said the central question is whether high opt-outs will hide achievement gaps in some districts.

She said that while she understands parental rights, large numbers of opt-outs mean the state doesn’t get a true understanding of challenges facing schools.

“You are not getting the full picture,” Pharo Carter said.

Graphics by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.