wait a minute

Colorado will stick with the ACT one more year before SAT switch

The rival bids (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

The time and money Colorado high school juniors have invested in ACT test preparation will not be for naught: The state is sticking with the time-honored college preparation exam this spring before switching to the rival SAT next year.

Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp announced the one-year delay Monday and provided more details about the process and decision-making behind the state’s planned move to the SAT, which a selection committee found was more in harmony with the state’s academic standards.

The delay is welcome news to district superintendents, educators, students and others upset at the prospect of having to prepare for an entirely new test on such short notice.

The announcement does not reverse the state’s shift to the SAT; that would require legislative action. Instead, it means that 11th graders will take the ACT this spring, while 10th graders will take the PSAT in preparation for the SAT next year. The state is doing away with PARCC English and math tests for 10th and 11th graders that only debuted last spring.

Asp said at a news conference that a 15-member selection committee charged with making the decision unanimously chose 10th and 11th grade tests offered by The College Board, makers of the SAT, over a bid from the ACT. The ACT has been given to Colorado 11th graders since 2001.

Asp said the committee — which included superintendents, district assessment coordinators, content specialists and others — determined that the PSAT and SAT are better measures of the state’s academic standards than the ACT and the ACT Aspire. He emphasized that the committee was far larger than the three or four people that typically would be involved.

Selection committee members | Jan DeLay, Superintendent of the Valley school district | Linda Reed, superintendent of Archuleta County school district | Kermit Snyder, superintendent of Rocky Ford school district | Johan van Nieuwenhuizen, Weld school district | Carol Eaton, executive director of assessment and research, Jefferson County School District | Julie Knowles, director of special programs at Garfield school district | Margaret Ruckstuhl, research, data and accountability officer, Harrison School District | Frances Woolery-James, secondary special education director, Cherry Creek School District | Patrick Kilcullen, priority programs coordinator, St. Vrain Valley School District | Cathy Martin, director of mathematics curriculum and instruction, Denver Public Schools | Kristina Smith, secondary English language arts specialist instructional support team, Mesa school district | Timalyn O’Neill, associate director of marketing and communications, Colorado State University Office of Admissions | Cory Notestine, counseling and postsecondary coordinator, Colorado Springs School District 11 | Sandi Brown, head of school, Colorado Early Colleges | Will Morton, director of assessment administration, Colorado Department of Education

“I believe in the process,” Asp said in an interview. “I think it was done in good faith. I think the (selection committee members) were very deliberative and thought about it very carefully and ended up in a place of unanimous support that the assessments, in their minds — and they know a lot more about it than the rest of us — are the best assessments in the long run.”

Cost also was a factor, but not a major one, he said. That said, the difference was significant: The College Board’s bid to provide the tests over the next five years was $14.8 million compared to the ACT’s $23 million bid, officials said. Most of the cost difference came in the 10th grade test administration.

Points for equity

Selection committee member Julie Knowles, director of assessment and special programs for the Garfield School District in Rifle, said Monday she was swayed by the SAT’s alignment to the state’s academic standards and by free resources promised to students.

Those include personalized online test practice through Khan Academy, an app that feeds students SAT “questions of the day” and a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club that connects low-income students with those resources and others.

Knowles said those pieces — which ACT did not match — demonstrated a commitment to equity, serving all students and closing achievement gaps separating students based on their family income.

Joyce Zurkowski, the education department’s head of assessments, sounded a similar theme.

“College Board really presented a very convincing argument they are committed to equity issues and making sure all kids have access to preparation and activities and tools – not just kids who can afford to pay additional funds for that,” she said.

Colorado superintendents and others have mourned the loss of yet more longitudinal test data during a stretch when the state has adopted so many new assessments. Knowles said the committee extensively discussed the consequences of switching tests, and empathized with the concern about losing that data.

“High school is not the only grade level to lose its longitudinal data,” she said. “Third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade teachers have lost it, and so forth and so on. We have to remember why they lost it. We are trying to move to these new standards, and our assessments need to reflect these standards. High school is the final piece of the puzzle. If we don’t match the high school assessments to what is going on at the elementary level, we will have a big misalignment and do kids a disservice.”

Colorado assessment chief Joyce Zurkowski and interim superintendent Elliott Asp speak to reporters Monday (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado)
Colorado assessment chief Joyce Zurkowski and interim superintendent Elliott Asp speak to reporters Monday (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado)

Asp said education department officials have talked with both testing vendors and measurement experts about how to link scores from the competing tests to allow for measuring changes in student performance over time.

As part of sweeping testing reform legislation last spring, Colorado lawmakers required a competitive process for state tests given to 10th and 11th graders, setting up a high-stakes battle between two testing giants vying for the state testing market.

Any Colorado student remains free to take either the SAT or ACT. But the state will pay for only one of them, and the SAT eventually will become part of the system holding schools and districts accountable for student performance. Part of the rationale in making the ACT a statewide test more than 15 years ago was to get more students thinking about college.

A new SAT

The SAT is entirely new this spring, meant to better line up with the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado adopted. State officials and those more closely involved with the selection process credited the new SAT for asking students to read passages, interpret them and cite evidence — a critical piece of state standards.

Steve Lash, the longtime head of the honors program at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 school district, served on a panel of teachers who compared SAT and ACT questions to the standards, then reported its findings to the selection committee. Going in, Lash said he thought “we were going to justify our use of the ACT. I was surprised as anyone by the outcome.”

“We were struck with just how really different the tests are nowadays,” Lash said. “The SAT is superior now, especially on reading.”

The redesigned SAT puts much more of a premium on critical thinking, he said. Lash added that his group felt neither set of tests did an adequate job measuring writing skills.

Harry Bull, superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, said districts need time to judge the new-look SAT. He said his “angst and anxiety” is not about the tests but about the decision-making process and how the move was announced.

State officials on Dec. 23 announced the decision to switch to the SAT starting this spring, and only hinted vaguely at working toward “flexibility” for this year’s junior class. Then on Jan. 4, the state announced it was working on letting students take the ACT again this year. Noting the uncertainty students faced, Bull called the approach “not very thoughtful.”

State officials say they recognized the challenges facing this year’s 11th graders from the outset, but had to follow state procedures and strike a deal with the two testing giants.

Bull was among a group of about 120 district superintendents who signed a letter to the State Board of Education last week raising questions about the process and decision. The letter suggested school districts were not consulted before a request for proposal was opened to interested testing providers, raising the possibility that procurement rules may not have been followed. Asp said officials followed proper procedure, talking to superintendents and others before the request went out.

ACT: no need for ‘knee-jerk’ change

Cyndie Schmeiser, The College Board’s chief of assessment, said in a statement that the test provider supports delaying the SAT administration another year, saying it is in the “best interest of students and educators.”

Paul Weeks, ACT senior vice president for client relations, said the testing firm was happy to continue giving the ACT in Colorado this spring, which he called an “unexpected ask.” But Weeks expressed disappointment Monday in the state’s decision to change to the SAT. He said ACT is confident in its assessments and continually improves them without resorting to “radical change.”

“We are not going to do anything rash,” Weeks said when asked about the ACT losing not just Colorado’s business but two other states’ in recent months. “We certainly are not going to engage in any knee-jerk change. When research and evidence is driving what you do, you have to be true to that.”

Both the ACT and SAT are accepted at all Colorado colleges and universities.

Click here to read a previous Chalkbeat story about the competition between the ACT and SAT in Colorado.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.