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:

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.