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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.