awaiting clarity

Expecting big changes to state testing this year? Don’t hold your breath

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

Some Colorado districts and lawmakers have long been itching to throw off the straitjacket of state standardized tests so they could experiment with alternative ways of gauging student learning.

A new federal law offers hope for such flexibility, but it appears unlikely Colorado legislators will take any major action on the issue this year.

“There’s not going to be significant legislation,” said Lakewood Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, chair of the House Education Committee.

The only proposal she foresees is the possibility lawmakers could direct the Colorado Department of Education study the issue.

Why? Lawmakers want to wait until the U.S. Department of Education fleshes out the details of the new law with regulations.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress late last year, leaves the familiar annual testing calendar in place. But the bill also offers grants that states can use to try to improve their testing systems. That could open the door for a states, for example, to use of multiple tests. The law also creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests.

What that will mean in practice remains to be seen. Experts who are creating new rules for the federal department that will accompany the law are just starting their work.

Asked whether ESSA allows multiple state tests, Assistant Commissioner Gretchen Morgan of CDE told the House Education Committee at a recent hearing that there is still much to learn about the new law.

“ESSA does still speak to a single state assessment. … We don’t know yet what to expect,” she said. “It’s going to be a while.”

The committee backed a bill to study options for future state test changes but defeated a bill aimed at making Colorado attractive for an upcoming federal testing pilot program.

The committee passed House Bill 16-1234, which would require the state education department to study possible alternative tests in language arts, math, science social studies and report back to the legislature.

“This is a study bill. It’s a do-nothing bill this year” but could lay some groundwork for the future, said sponsor Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs. As one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, Klingenschmitt has little clout in the Democratic-controlled House. If his bill doesn’t survive, Pettersen indicated the idea might be resurrected in another measure.

The other bill, House Bill 16-1131, called for the state education department to recommend local testing options to the State Board of Education and would have allowed the department to reduce testing under certain circumstances if Colorado participates in the ESSA pilot.

Sponsor Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill was intended to ensure a testing pilot program included in last year’s state testing reform law would be tailored to make it more attractive to districts.

Pettersen said she didn’t think the state needed a bill to do those things.

“I believe that’s correct,” Morgan replied.

The bill was killed on a 7-4 vote, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition

Testing alternatives might come into play in another bill. Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on a yet-to-be-introduced measure intended to give school districts some relief from state mandates, including how frequently some districts have to file improvement plans.

Wilson agreed his bill also could provide a vehicle for discussion of testing alternatives. But he doesn’t think that will happen this year. “I think that may wait for flexibility 2.0 legislation next year.”

Last year’s testing reform law included a provision creating a complicated, multi-year pilot program under which districts could experiment with different tests, but no district has taken up the offer.

“We haven’t received any notifications from districts or charter schools that they’re interested in doing that,” Morgan told the committee.

A group of 10 rural districts is working on what’s called the Student-Centered Accountability Project, hoping to design an alternative to the current state system for rating districts and schools. The group currently is seeking bids for management of the project and trying to determine costs.

Only two states, Arizona and Florida, are actively pursuing alternative tests, according to a recent Education Week article. A bill that would allow districts to choose from a menu of tests is headed to the governor’s desk in Arizona.

measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Read the letter in its entirety below.

Digging in

We read all 279 pages of reports about grade changes in Memphis. Here are five big takeaways.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
At least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant High School shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade alterations, according to a report.

Reports detailing how grades were falsified at Trezevant High School have called into question whether grade changes happening at other Memphis high schools are legitimate.

Shelby County Schools released the results last week of a six-month investigation into how grades are handled at all 41 high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. The probe launched after a new Trezevant principal reported inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts at his school in September 2016.

We read all 279 pages of the reports by legal and accounting firms hired to look into the matter. Here are five takeaways:

1. Some of the allegations have merit.

Complaints that some grades had been changed on transcripts at Trezevant High ring true, according to the report, and there’s cause for suspicion at some other high schools, too.

A team of investigators led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton said at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade changes.

But Trezevant might not be alone. A separate report by a North Carolina accounting firm found a high rate of grade changes at six other high schools within Shelby County Schools. The average number of grade changes across all high schools was 53, but Trezevant had 461 and Kirby logged 582 between 2012 and 2016. A deeper probe into those schools has been ordered.

2. District leaders weren’t caught totally off guard

While expressing surprise at the findings, district administrators began building in safeguards to prevent illicit grade changes months before Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported finding discrepancies. Under a 2016 change, Shelby County Schools began requiring all teachers to use the same electronic grading database known as SMS.

“The District implemented this policy in an effort to effectuate a uniform and consistent method for grade entry which was designed to ensure truthful grading data,” the report said. “As an additional safeguard, SCS also required school principals to implement grading protocols aimed at ensuring the accuracy of the grades that teachers entered into SMS.”

Additionally, Mackin told investigators that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin “informed him that there was an ‘adult culture problem’ and ‘a financial mess’ that needed to be ‘cleaned up’ at Trezevant.”

And this week, Hopson said rumors of grade-changing have been floating around for years.

“As a Memphian, who went to school here, far back as high school, I would always hear rumors of people changing people’s grades,” he told reporters. “That’s persisted for a long period of time.”

3. Grade floors and grade tampering aren’t the same thing.

Around the same time that Mackin turned over evidence of falsified grades, he implemented a “grade floor” policy in which Trezevant students don’t receive grades below a certain threshold.

So if a student was failing a class, Mackin discouraged teachers from giving that student a grade below 60 percent because “there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote in an email to then-supervisor Tonye Smith-McBride. Such low grades would contribute to a lack of student motivation and behavior issues, he argued.

Mackin told investigators that he was referring to future grades, but the timing of his directive appeared to contribute to confusion about grading policies at Trezevant, making some teachers think that their principal was instructing them to retroactively change failing grades to passing ones.

Trezevant isn’t alone in having grade floors. Hopson said other schools have similar practices and that he would like a uniform policy on the issue. Stanton’s report makes that recommendation.

4. Investigators found no evidence to support other complaints that were not about academics.

Mackin’s six-page resignation letter on June 1 accused Shelby County Schools of a cover-up and said that he was being painted as a scapegoat for questionable finances at Trezevant.

“Our investigation has determined that no cover up occurred,” the report read, adding that investigators found no evidence that Mackin was “wrongfully targeted” either as the district looked into finances.

In fact, the report noted that, in several public statements, district leaders hailed Mackin for unearthing suspicious activity on grades. As for a cover-up, Hopson alerted the State Department of Education in a timely matter that the district was conducting an internal review into Mackin’s concerns.

Investigators also found no evidence to support Mackin’s allegations that Trezevant’s football coach mis-reported the school’s enrollment to state athletic officials and that his supervisor had sexually harassed him.

5. There’s still lots of questions to be answered.

The accounting firm hired to review transcript changes at Memphis high schools found that 10 schools had more than 200 instances from 2012 to 2016. However, the review team could not determine if any were fraudulent and concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Investigators also were hampered from getting to the truth at Trezevant without the subpoena power that compels witnesses to speak up.

For example, investigators could not locate several people that Mackin claimed had evidence that would incriminate football coach Teli White, who has since been fired, regarding allegations that he paid student-athletes. They also could not search White’s email or bank accounts to look into allegations of financial fraud.

Hopson told reporters this week that his administration is considering turning over a list of former school administrators to Shelby County’s district attorney, who would have subpoena power in the matter. The superintendent, who is an attorney, said the findings of the first external review may merit a criminal investigation.

The full report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman is available here.

The full Ogletree Deakins report is available here.