READ Act Spat

Thousands of young English learners will take literacy tests in English under state board action

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.

About 6,500 Colorado students face the prospect of taking a literacy test in a language they are still learning after a State Board of Education vote Wednesday.

The Republican-controlled board voted 4-3 along party lines to require kindergarten through third grade students in dual-language and bilingual programs who take mandatory reading tests in Spanish to also take one reading test in English a year.

The change to a rule governing the READ Act, a four-year old early literacy law, angered those who say it creates an unfair burden on English learners and won’t advance the cause of creating strong readers.

In approving the revision, the board majority went against the wishes of the state’s largest school district, prominent education groups, specialists who work with English learners and the primary sponsors of the READ Act. Passed with bipartisan support, the 2012 law uses tests to identify significant reading deficiencies and help students improve.

All four Republicans backed the rule change, while the three Democrats voted against it.

The board majority portrayed the change as an important check on a costly program meant to make sure kids are literate and positioned to succeed. Critics contend the change will effectively double-test kids, produce faulty data and undermine local control.

Evolution of literacy law

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 then changed.

The rules were revisited again this school year because of a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that the rule change will not result in testing kids twice during the same period with the same assessment, once in English and once in Spanish.

The READ Act requires one test at the beginning of year, one test at the end of year and ongoing monitoring of student progress. As a result of the board action, a READ Act assessment will need to be given once a year in English, at any time, to track student progress towards grade-level reading competency, and that won’t need to be repeated in Spanish, Dorman said.

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

For the second consecutive month, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova appeared before the state board during public comment to sharply criticize the proposal, calling it a “dangerous overreach.”

Cordova has said the state risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems, and robs classroom instruction from students who already take more tests than their peers.

The rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy, DPS has said.

In an interview Wednesday, Cordova said that giving an English-language literacy test to a very young student still learning the language “has very limited value until they acquire enough English to give us meaningful data” on their progress.

As DPS students are learning to read in Spanish — while simultaneously learning English — the district is continuously tracking their progress in reading.

“It’s very important to state that our goal is for all kids — including Spanish speakers — to become proficient in speaking and reading English,” Cordova said. “Our advocacy is because when students have a strong foundation in their first language, they perform at higher levels in English.”

“Without exception”

Board chairman Steve Durham, a lobbyist and former lawmaker from Colorado Springs, told the board Wednesday before voting in favor of the rule change that in weighing the issue, he spoke with “a number of groups and individuals who were involved in the original passage of the READ Act,” including business groups and education reform groups.

He said that “without exception,” those groups and people “have almost been so blunt as to say that if you cannot and don’t test in English, why bother?” The whole purpose of the READ Act, he said, is to move children toward success in the economic marketplace, and “the economic language is English.”

Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)

“I think we are doing these children a disservice — a terrible disservice — because the chances of their dropping out increases exponentially with the inability to read and write English,” Durham said. “I view this as a common-sense issue. It is hard to characterize it as a significant burden on districts or children.”

In an interview after the meeting, Durham would not identify the groups and people he consulted, “to respect those confidences,” he said.

In the last month, the state board has been inundated with letters opposing the change from groups across the ideological spectrum. They included the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union), the Rural Schools Alliance and the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Also writing against the change were the primary sponsors of the bipartisan READ Act — Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

“The intention of the bill is not to establish bilingualism, bi-literacy, or to identify vocabulary gaps in English language learners,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is to establish the ability to read in the language in which the student is fluent.”

Typically, Republicans on the state board oppose testing. Last year, the board majority voted to direct the education commissioner to grant waivers to local school boards and districts wanting to opt out of a portion of state math and English language arts tests. The state attorney general, however, found the board lacked that authority.

Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, championed the requirement of literacy testing in English as a critical check on a $40 million-a-year state investment in seeing through the READ Act.

“A lot of people who work with kids and know a lot about literacy want this because they know in order to track whether kids are learning to read, they need that data point,” Scheffel said in an interview.

Protection against lawsuits?

Jen Walmer, Colorado director of Democrats for Education Reform, which supported passage of the READ Act four years ago, criticized the board’s action and took issue with the majority’s view of the literacy law’s purpose.

“No reasonable person would think that an English speaker unable to read a newspaper in Finland has suddenly become illiterate – language fluency and the ability to read are two obviously distinct skills,” she said in an email.

Walmer drew a connection to the board’s rejection last month of a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy — endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

“Perhaps their only focus is mastery of the English language and not the skills that will truly make our students best able to compete in a global economy,” she said.

An earlier version of the rule change applied to “English learners” in bilingual and dual-language programs. That was changed to “students,” which board member Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, suggested was meant to protect against lawsuits.

“We have had a tremendous amount of feedback against this,” she said. “… I haven’t heard any support for this.”

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.

Read Chalkbeat’s recent story about how teachers view the READ Act four years in here.

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.