test swap uproar

Formal protest of Colorado’s switch from the ACT to SAT falters, but another effort launches

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

One challenge to the state’s switch from the ACT to the SAT for 11th grade testing fizzled Thursday while another — launched by roughly 120 district superintendents — took a new tack by arguing state officials may not have followed the rules.

The Colorado Association of School Executives filed a protest Wednesday with the state education department challenging the decision to swap tests, arguing the decision was made without regard to the financial impact on Colorado schools and districts.

But in a statement Thursday to Chalkbeat, senior assistant attorney general Tony Dyl said CASE has no legal standing to protest the contract award to The College Board, the makers of the SAT. CDE officials confirmed hearing the same.

As that effort was seemingly dashed, another surfaced. In a letter Thursday to the State Board of Education, the group of district superintendents raised a litany of concerns about changing tests. Most significantly, the superintendents contend the state did not meet a state procurement process requirement that purchasing offices “meet with interested parties, including affected political subdivisions” before developing a request for a proposal such as the testing contract.

The letter says: “Since it appears school districts were not consulted in this process, this state procurement process was not met.”

An education department spokeswoman said the department is preparing a full response to the letter, and did not have an immediate comment.

District representatives did take part in the process of comparing the two bids from the testing giants. State officials say the selection committee that ultimately recommended The College Board included educators and administrators from urban, rural and suburban districts. The process also included content matter experts, assessment experts, special population professionals, guidance counselors and higher education professionals.

Among the other concerns raised by the district superintendents:

  • Communication about the process and the chance to provide input were “significantly lacking,” and the announcement made when many schools were closed for winter break lacked information about how it all came together.
  • As the state adopts other standardized tests, ditching the ACT means a loss of what has become a rarity: longitudinal data. The ACT has been given in Colorado since 2001.
  • Students who live in poverty are sometimes motivated to attend college by taking the ACT, and this is the test they’ve been preparing for this spring.
  • The timing of the change is complicated because school districts are preparing for adopting and putting in place new graduation requirements, starting with the class of 2021.

Echoing another of the superintendents’ concerns, the CASE protest argued Colorado schools have aligned their efforts for students to perform well on the ACT, and many districts have purchased tests, materials, and data reporting tools to support students in earlier grades.

In his email to Chalkbeat explaining why the protest lacked legal standing, Dyl said the statute at issue says that “any actual or prospective bidder, offeror, or contractor who is aggrieved in connection with a solicitation or award of a contract may protest…”  The ACT is the only entity that would fit that definition and it filed no protest, he said.

The superintendents and CASE joined a growing chorus of criticism of the process and reasoning behind abandoning a long-established and well-respected college entrance exam favored by colleges and universities in the region.

Already, state education officials are working on a compromise that would delay the move to the SAT until spring 2017.

The state education department has disclosed little about the process that led to the choice of the bid from The College Board, saying rules prevent disclosure of information about the bids or the identities of the committee members until the process wraps up. Though that process concluded Wednesday, the CASE protest brought more uncertainty.

Dana Smith, a department of education spokeswoman, said the department is aware of the AG office’s conclusion about the CASE protest but wants to wait for confirmation from the state’s director of procurement before releasing more details about the bids and selection committee.

The two testing giants have been locked in a high-stakes battle to win contracts from states that mandate a college-entrance exams for high school students. Two longtime ACT states — Illinois and Michigan — recently defected to the SAT.

This spring’s SAT is an entirely new test, refashioned to better align with the Common Core State Standards in English and math. State officials cited the tests’ harmony with the Common Core in announcing why the College Board prevailed.

Testing reform legislation approved last spring required 10th and 11th grade tests to be put out to competitive bid and that they be aligned with state academic standards.

Critics of the move say this yet again makes Colorado students guinea pigs, coming off the introduction of PARCC tests last spring.

Along with pressing for a delay in the switch to the SAT, CASE asked the state to revisit the decision entirely, “with a greater level of input and participation from educators in order to fully understand the potential positive and negative impacts and financial burden to school districts of this testing contract.” Educators did take part in the procurement process, including meeting to compare the the two tests to the state’s academic standards.

Bruce Caughey, CASE’s executive director, said in an interview conducted before the AG’s comments that the organization wanted to seize the opportunity to take part in the process when it could. But he thinks the decision ultimately will be political, with involvement from legislators and members of the State Board of Education.

“I don’t think our protest was weighing in about the quality of either test,” Caughey said. “It was more about the process school districts will have to go through to make sure this test provides value to students and families.”

Here is the full text of the CASE protest:

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.