reading is fundamental

Proposed change to early literacy testing would harm English learners, critics say

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).

The State Board of Education is weighing a change in how Colorado gives early literacy tests, a proposal Denver Public Schools and others say would unduly burden English learners, produce faulty data and infringe on local control.

The board is considering adopting new rules governing the READ Act, a 2012 state law that focuses on literacy in kindergarten through third grade. The law calls for using tests to identify and help students with significant reading deficiencies.

The proposed revision would apply to English learners who get literacy instruction in both English and Spanish — in other words, students in bilingual or dual-language instruction programs.

Under the proposal, students tested in reading in Spanish also would need to be tested in reading in English every year, too. Roughly 6,500 Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade would be impacted, state officials say.

The state board discussed the issue Wednesday but put off a vote until March.

In a letter and comments to the board, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova argued the proposed change conflicts with the READ Act and will have a “damaging impact” on English learners.

Cordova said if adopted, the rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy.

Cordova pointed to the battery of tests already facing students who are trying to learn in their native language while simultaneously being taught a new one. Those assessments include early literacy tests, state assessments in English and math that begin in third grade, and an English proficiency test called ACCESS given in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Susana Cordova, right.
PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

“English learners have double the work, so to speak, and yet are also subjected to the most assessments,” she said.

Cordova also said the proposed change risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems and conflicts with the principle of local control, “the foundation of Colorado’s education laws and regulations.”

“We strongly believe in the power of assessments,” Cordova told the board. “But this additional requirement will take valuable instructional time away with very little return in instructional value that we don’t already have from other resources.”

Jorge Garcia, vice president of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education, argued the proposed change amounts to an unfunded mandate. He said teachers, students and administrators have no problem with how the READ Act is structured now.

“If it’s not broken,” he said, “don’t fix it.”

The original READ Act rules adopted in 2013 required testing of all students in kindergarten through third grade in English to identify significant reading deficiencies. Some districts, however, chose to also test in Spanish.

After some in the education community raised concerns about students being tested twice, the state Attorney General’s office in August 2014 issued an opinion affirming that the focus of the READ Act is on the skill of reading, “not the language in which it is employed.” The rules were changed as a result.

The rules are being revisited now because of testing reform legislation last spring that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

State board member Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, said the READ Act is the only state initiative measuring reading in kindergarten through third grade, and the two tests are necessary to determine whether the state is getting return on its investment.

Debora Scheffel
Debora Scheffel

“It seems that these rules are designed to help parents and teachers and kids know if they are progressing toward being able to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade in English and Spanish,” said Scheffel, part of a group of board members who frequently vote in the majority. “And that’s why the two tests make sense.”

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that based on conversations with the board, she believes members want to ensure that students getting bilingual or dual-language instruction meet those programs’ goals — biliteracy and bilingualism.

Department staff are trying to craft language that doesn’t go beyond the board’s statutory authority, Dorman said.

After hearing the concerns of DPS and others, Department of Education staff drafted an alternative proposal that would give more leeway to districts. The language confused some board members Wednesday, and questions arose about whether the alternative simply would preserve the status quo. Scheffel suggested that staff come up with third option for the board to consider.

Under the READ Act tests, students found to be struggling with reading get individual plans to help them reach grade level. The law also provides funding to support intervention.

Education Commissioner Richard Crandall, in his first board meeting in the position, asked the education department’s attorney general’s office representative whether the READ Act’s intent is to produce an English data point for every student.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl replied that he believes the answer is no. The READ Act, he said, “seemed to go to great pains” to not say which language is to be used to measure literacy, leaving that to local districts to decide.

“That greatly changes my opinion of the situation,” Crandall said.

He didn’t elaborate.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova’s letter to the state board:

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.