Testing 2016

Testing giants vie to provide Colorado high school exams

The final piece of Colorado’s 2016 testing puzzle should fall in place by year’s end when state officials decide whether the ACT testing company or the College Board, creators of the SAT, will provide 10th and 11th grade exams.

The decision will carry big implications for the state’s 125,000 high school sophomores and juniors and for the teachers who will prepare students for the exams and oversee test taking.

If the state chooses ACT’s bid, sophomores likely will take the ACT Aspire test, already used by some other states, including neighboring Wyoming. The test offered by the College Board is the PSAT 10. Either exam would take less time for students to finish than the PARCC language arts and math tests that 10th graders took last spring.

Sophomores spent more than 11 hours on PARCC tests last spring. The estimated time to take the ACT 10th grade test is a little more than four hours, while the College Board’s offering clocks in at just under three hours. The PARCC tests have been shortened somewhat for next spring.

For juniors, ACT offers the familiar ACT college entrance test, while the College Board provides the SAT exam.

The coming changes make school districts nervous, given that they’ll have only a few months to ramp up for the new exams.

Why Colorado is planning new tests

The two exams are required by the testing overhaul law passed by legislators last spring.

Lawmakers wanted to reduce the amount of time consumed by testing, particularly in high school. Last spring, 9th, 10th and 11th grade students all had to take PARCC language arts and math tests, and juniors also took the ACT. And seniors were required to take science and social studies tests the previous fall.

The legislature retained traditional testing for 9th graders. But it eliminated 11th grade language arts and math exams, and ordered the 10th grade tests replaced with a college readiness test.

Lawmakers wanted to do more than cut testing time. The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on college readiness. PARCC tests include only language arts and math. The ACT and College Board tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies and are calibrated to measure college and workforce readiness.

The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on gauging student readiness for college and the workforce in reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

The tests taken by sophomores and juniors are meant to be aligned. So, for instance, results on the 10th grade tests are designed to be predictive of results on the 11th grade exams, giving teachers information they can use to help students before they take tests as juniors. Because of the need for alignment, the state will choose one vendor to provide both tests.

Both companies have long history in Colorado

Learn more about the tests

Many people who’ve graduated from Colorado’s high schools remember the ACT. Every high school junior has had to take the test since 2001. About 55,000 students took the test last spring in the state’s public schools.

Even before the ACT became mandatory, it traditionally was the preferred test for students applying to Colorado colleges.

In contrast, the SAT has had a lower profile in Colorado. About 6,500 students who graduated last spring took the test.

Other College Board tests such as Advanced Placement are taken by some high school students, and some districts use other company tests.

Scores on the ACT test are used in the state accountability system as one factor to rate how well high schools are preparing students for college and careers. Overall, student ACT performance has been relatively flat for several years.

Annual scores on other tests like PARCC are also used in school ratings. In addition, the state rating system uses multiple years of test scores to track student academic growth over time.

So a change in the main set of language arts and math tests disrupts the collection of growth data until the new tests are given for at least two years. The state’s rating system is on hold this year because PARCC tests were new last spring.

But no growth data is calculated from multiple years of ACT tests, so switching 11th grade tests isn’t necessarily a problem.

“If SAT can predict college readiness as well as ACT, we don’t lose a lot” by switching, said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability and research officer for Aurora Public Schools. “It’s a new group of students every year.”

Change raises concerns for districts

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into giving tests, and some districts fear they’re going to have to scramble to get ready once the state announces which tests will be used.

“It really does matter which test,” Escarcega said. “If it’s ACT, the issue is minimized in terms of having to ramp up.”

If the College Board tests are chosen, teachers will need to be trained quickly, Escarcega said.

And Mya Martin-Glenn, the Aurora district’s assessment director, noted that juniors in many districts already have taken practice ACT tests this school year but won’t necessarily be as prepared for SATs.

When tests will be given and who pays

The Department of Education hasn’t yet decided when the tests will given next spring. The 11th grade test will be given on a single day, with one makeup date. The department expects to do the same thing with the 10th grade exam but won’t decide until later. CDE plans to offer the tests on paper, not online.

Those decisions will be made after a testing company is chosen. CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith said the department anticipates making  a recommendation to the state procurement director before the end of the year,” said CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith.

State procedures required the tests be put out to competitive bid, and the testing law requires the tests be rebid every five years.

The state has budgeted $1.8 million for the new 10th grade exam. The current ACT test for juniors costs about $2.1 million a year. An additional $432,000 has been budgeted to cover the costs of juniors who also want to take a writing exam next spring. The state will cover those costs.

Last spring’s testing law also requires the state to cover the costs of 11th grade writing exams for students who wish to take them.

The national picture

In decades past, the ACT and SAT tests were taken primarily by students using them to apply to college. But in recent years both companies have moved into the state test market.

Alabama, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming use ACT Aspire for 10th graders. Some states also use different versions of Aspire in lower grades. The College Board partners with a dozen states on various tests. And some states use both tests.

See which states use which tests in this list provided by the Education Commission of the States. ECS discusses testing trends in this paper.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.