reading is fundamental

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

PHOTO: Photo by Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class.

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:

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.

Only 45 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.