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.

pisa power

A surprising link: when kids work harder on tests, their countries’ economies grow more

American politicians often wring their hands over the country’s mediocre performance on international tests. New research finds one reason they’re right to worry: a country’s scores on one of those tests, known as PISA, do tend to mirror its economic growth.

That research also arrives at a more surprising finding — one that could add to the debate about the importance of teaching students “soft skills” in school.

Students’ ability to push through to the end of the test — their “stick-to-it-iveness,” if you will — was equally able to predict whether a country was on an upward economic climb, the study found.

Students in certain Northern European and Asian countries, for example, did nearly as well on questions toward the end of the test as they did on its early questions. The idea is that those students don’t give up easily, a technique that’s been used in previous studies to get at hard-to-measure skills like “grit” or perseverance.

In some cases, countries where students did similarly at the start of the test saw big differences in how quickly performance declined over the course of the exam.

On the 2006 PISA, the U.S. scored in the middle of the pack of nearly 60 countries in both overall performance and in students’ decline between the first question and the last.

Past studies have found that a country’s performance on international tests predicts future economic growth, but the latest study, published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, is among the first to try to quantify the impact of these harder-to-measure traits.

“Both the starting performance and the performance decline are positively and significantly associated with economic growth,” the researchers write.

Worth noting: the U.S. has been an outlier in the past when it comes to PISA. Our economic growth has outpaced other countries’ with similar scores.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.