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:

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.