analysis

Why Colorado’s testing opt-out movement could struggle to build on 2015’s big numbers

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

A year ago, thousands of Colorado students, parents and educators fed up with state tests used to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable said enough was enough.

More than 100,000 kids in grades three through 11 did not take new tests in math and language arts designed to measure how well they stack up to state academic standards.

Only about half of the state’s 11th graders took the exams. Just one grade — third — saw participation rates hit the 95 percent threshold set as the minimum required under federal law.

Colorado had become an epicenter of the opt-out movement.

This year, things are different.

Here are five reasons opt-out organizers may have a hard time building on that momentum this testing season:

There are fewer tests, and they’re shorter.

On the very last day of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers passed compromise legislation that pared back state assessments. Not everyone was satisfied, but the political dynamics of shared governance meant pragmatism was going to win out.

The biggest headline was the elimination of PARCC language arts and math tests in 10th and 11th grades — and the preservation of ninth grade tests at the insistence of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose veto pen held sway over the spring.

The biggest reason why PARCC opt-out numbers will plummet this year: High school sophomores and juniors accounted for more than half — 53,000 — of the roughly 104,000 Colorado students who did not take PARCC exams last spring, according to state data.

At the same time, PARCC exams got a little shorter for the states that remain in the increasingly skeletal multi-state collective that give the online Common Core tests.

At least one Colorado opt-out activist has said the goal for this year is to grow the number of opt-outs three-fold — to 300,000.

But former teacher Angela Engel, founder and executive director of United for Kids, a volunteer-run nonprofit that focuses not just on opt-out but more broadly on equity, innovation and organizing parents, cautioned against using raw numbers as a measuring stick.

With 10th and 11th grade PARCC testing gone, Engel argues the strength of the opt-out movement is better measured in the percentage of students that opt-out this spring.

“One of my concerns is that it’ll appear that opt-out is actually on the decline, when it’s not,” she said. “What is in decline is the amount of testing.”

Two opt-out hot spots last year report things haven’t changed much so far this year. In the Boulder Valley School District, about half of ninth-graders, a quarter of middle-schoolers and one in 10 elementary school students have opted out of PARCC this spring, officials say. The Cherry Creek School District says opt-out figures there are tracking with last year’s, too.

Colorado Education Commissioner Rich Crandall told Chalkbeat earlier this spring he expects much greater participation rates on this year’s state tests.

“I think we’re in a fair place,” Crandall said of Colorado’s testing landscape. “It’s definitely not too much testing, and I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.”

The political noise has quieted — for now.

A year ago, backlash against Common Core standards and the debut of PARCC tests dominated headlines. As online PARCC tests arrived — and not without glitches — state lawmakers got to work.

Not only was testing reform the signature education issue of the session, it was one of the biggest issues of the session, period.

Even before the 2016 General Assembly began, lawmakers signaled they were tired of it. Consider this, from a Democrat on the Senate Education Committee:

Sure enough, attempts to further chisel away at testing have fizzled this year.

On Tuesday, a bill that would have eliminated mandatory ninth grade PARCC tests died a swift death on the Senate floor. That the measure couldn’t even clear the Republican-controlled Senate — where it stood a far better chance of passage — tells you all you need to know.

There’s another reason for Colorado’s acceptance of the status quo this year: The long-in-the-making rewrite of the nation’s primary K-12 education law gives states greater flexibility to strike out on their own when it comes to what testing looks like and how it relates to accountability.

Crandall has not been shy about wanting to put Colorado at the front of the line in seeking this flexibility. Lawmakers have expressed interest in doing the same, when the time is right.

Colorado’s break from the testing wars may end up being a one-year cease fire.

There’s little evidence — so far — the opt-out movement is getting more diverse.

You might have seen the Twitter hashtag #optoutsowhite.

That the opt-out movement’s biggest numbers lie in wealthy white suburban enclaves such as south suburban Denver and Boulder County is indisputable.

Last year in Colorado, white students were disproportionately represented in the group that did not take PARCC tests, state data shows. Across all tested grades, about 78 percent of white students took the tests, while 85 percent of black students and 88 percent of Hispanic students did. Fewer than 9 percent of those who missed the exams last spring were eligible for free and reduced lunch status — an indicator of poverty.

It’s unclear how many students skipped the tests in protest or missed them for other reasons. (The figures above were calculated using the English tests; math participation was comparable).

An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).
An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).

As Politico noted earlier this spring, the opt-out movement is working to diversify it ranks and persuade minority parents that state tests are bad for their kids.

In Colorado, a small-scale billboard campaign encouraging opt-out this spring is focused not on minority communities but rather high-population centers, said Engel, of United for Kids. Five billboard designs picturing children who are opting out — one of them an African-American girl — are on display along the Front Range.

Jennilynne Coley is a Cherry Creek School District parent who is refusing to allow her African-American son to take state tests this spring at Laredo Middle School in Aurora.

Coley said she doesn’t think the tests accurately measure his intelligence or chances of success. She believes the tests are used unfairly against teachers in evaluations and determining their pay. And she is convinced the focus on testing unduly influences classroom teaching.

I asked Coley why more parents of students of color haven’t embraced the opt-out movement.

“When you don’t understand or know how the system works, you don’t understand you do have power and you do have a voice and you can speak up,” said Coley, who is self-employed.

She went on to say that minority parents are more likely to listen to school leaders and other authority figures, and are “busy taking care of their families and trying to survive.”

At the same time, standardized testing supporters are working to shore up support in minority communities, arguing that mass opt-outs will once again obscure achievement gaps that No Child Left Behind-era testing finally brought to the surface.

The opt-out movement — and the motivations behind it — is diffuse.

If it feels hard to get your hands around the opt-out movement, you’re not imagining things.

There is no one dominant organization, no one-stop shop for information. The movement is comprised of a few volunteer-run groups with not a lot of money, and engaged parents and students who are relying primarily on word of mouth and social media to spread their message.

“It’s pretty diffuse,” said former Jefferson County school board member Paula Noonan, who has an ear to the ground on opt-out doings. “It’s generally grassroots and under the radar.”

In late February in Los Angeles, I moderated an Education Writers Association panel on the opt-out movement. To open the discussion, I posed this question to Robert Schaeffer, a longtime critic of standardized testing who is public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing:

“What is the ultimate goal of opt-out? Is it to eliminate accountability-based standardized testing altogether? To reduce the volume of testing? To uncouple tests from school accountability and teacher evaluations? All of the above?”

Schaeffer’s reply, roughly paraphrased: All of the above.

While the loose structure and a wide range of agendas can prove beneficial, it also makes growing a movement challenging.

Opt-outs rates are likely to rise in some places — in ninth grade, certain high schools and some rural districts — but not enough to offset these other factors.

Let’s be clear: The opt-out movement in Colorado is not just limping along, nor is it going anywhere. It’s hard to imagine parents who opposed testing all of a sudden last year having a change of heart.

Schools in high-performing, affluent suburban areas with high opt-out rates last year may very well top them this year.

Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).
Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).

Parents in rural districts that didn’t see much opt-out activity last year may look at what happened in other rural communities last year and join the cause.

One thing seems a safe bet: lower participation in ninth-grade PARCC exams — possibly much lower.

It’s easy to envision high school freshmen looking at their older classmates and saying, “If they don’t have to take these tests, why should I?” An underwhelming number of students taking ninth grade tests would provide more ammunition to backers of finding alternative tests for freshmen.

Reports also are trickling in of poor participation on high school science tests — these are Colorado-only tests, not part of PARCC — in some school and districts.

Noonan, the former Jeffco board member, said Colorado opt-out activists are focusing efforts on elementary schools, where testing participation is high. You can see the logic — start ’em young. But it might be prove a tough sell.

“For the most part, at the elementary level, there is still value in knowing how our students are doing,” said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation in the Cherry Creek district.

Proponents of Colorado’s academic standards and aligned tests, meanwhile, hold out hope that year one was the toughest, and that more people will buy into the tests once they get used to them and get a fuller picture of student performance.

“Going into the second year, we’re going to start to see growth data and more information because we can compare the results to previous years,” said Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the tests.

The state’s official testing window closes Friday, and a full picture of participation rates will not be available for a few months.

Absent the political rancor, tests in two critical high school grades or significant progress in growing and diversifying their ranks, anti-testing activists’ goal of building on the momentum of last year’s big opt-out numbers faces a tough test.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”

bills bills bills

New legislation aims to diversify New York City’s elite high schools. Here are 3 reasons to be skeptical.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
State Senator Jamaal Bailey unveiled legislation to boost diversity at the city's specialized high schools on Thursday.

Legislation introduced Thursday aimed at integrating New York City’s specialized high schools skirted one big issue: the admissions test.

Instead, the bills would create a new citywide test for sixth graders designed to help them prepare for the exam; establish a commission to study the admissions process and issue recommendations; and require that all specialized high schools admit some students who just missed the cutoff score.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing more to allow more students access to the test,” said Jamaal Bailey, a state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and crafted the legislation.

Specialized high schools have remained starkly segregated for years, despite pledges from Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote diversity at them. Last month, the education department announced black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers to the eight specialized schools that admit students based on a single exam — a number that has gone essentially unchanged since de Blasio took office more than four years ago. (Citywide, nearly 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.)

Standing on the steps of City Hall, and flanked by the alumni foundation president at Brooklyn Tech — a specialized school — Bailey unveiled a legislative package he said would help move the needle.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the plan. Here are three of them.

1. Experts say changing the admissions process is crucial to integrating specialized schools. This legislation leaves it alone.

Critics of the current admissions system argue that it favors students who have time and resources to prepare for an admissions test that serves as the sole gatekeeper for the ultra-selective schools. And researchers at New York University have shown that changing the admissions requirements to offer admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school is one of the few surefire ways to “substantially change” the schools’ demographics.

2. The proposal doubles down on a diversity program that is already in place — and isn’t making a dent.

Bailey’s legislation requires each specialized high school to participate in the Discovery program, which allows a small set of students to gain admission even if they score just below the cutoff. The city has already expanded that program to include every specialized school and it has helped a shrinking share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. And even if it helped more underrepresented students, its impact would likely be small: Just 4 percent of all specialized school admissions offers were issued through the program last year.

3. The bill assumes preparation will help underserved students gain admission, but the city’s test prep programs haven’t made a big difference.

The legislation creates a citywide test for sixth graders that would mimic the current exam for eighth graders, giving students a head start on preparing for the exam while simultaneously increasingly awareness of it. “Many children in my district don’t know about the test,” he said. But the city has already boosted public test prep programs (which some students have said are not high-quality) and expanded outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam. None of those efforts have changed the racial balance at specialized high schools, which are just as segregated as they were before those programs were expanded.

Bailey, who is himself a graduate of Bronx Science, a specialized school, acknowledged that his proposals may not radically change the demographics at the elite schools. But he said he is “not averse” to broader changes and said he imagined the new commission created by his legislation could recommend more systemic changes.

“I believe they will pay off,” he said. “It’s more opportunities and more information for children.”