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

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.