Put to the test

How Colorado districts comply with state law speaks volumes about their views on testing

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

At Boulder Valley School District high schools this spring, it was business as usual for freshmen in high-level courses who wanted no part of state standardized testing.

Students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs who skipped PARCC math and language arts exams received regular instruction. If you were among the few students who did take the tests, now in their second year, you had to catch up later.

This practice — which has been criticized by some lawmakers and parents — tests the limits of a state law that established new rules for how school districts handle federally required state assessments.

Last spring, lawmakers approved compromise testing legislation that reduced the volume of tests and required districts to provide more information about testing schedules and how to opt out. House Bill 1323 prohibits negative consequences for parents or students who opt-out of tests, and prohibits encouraging parents to opt their children out.

How districts have complied with the law opens a window into whether they value or dislike the current testing system and holding schools, districts and teachers accountable for results. Some districts — including Denver, the state’s largest — heavily promote the tests. Others do not.

The state’s official testing window closes today, and the coming months will provide a clearer picture of how the new testing law impacted participation rates and a host of other issues.

In Boulder Valley, how schools responded to state test opt-outs this spring varied by circumstances and grade, Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger said.

In elementary schools, where participation is high, students who don’t test may have been ushered to the library. Teachers in elementary and middle schools were told not to offer new instruction to students who skipped PARCC exams, he said.

But high school, Messinger said, presents different challenges.

The school district boasted some of the largest testing opt-out numbers in Colorado last year, especially in high schools in predominantly white, wealthy and liberal Boulder.

Last year’s testing legislation did away with PARCC testing for high school sophomores and juniors. But PARCC testing of freshmen remains — at least for now.

Messinger said if a large number of freshmen in advanced courses skipped the tests in the district’s five comprehensive high schools, regular instruction proceeded for those students. Freshmen who took the PARCC tests in those courses were promised help catching up, he said.

“We understand that feels like a little bit of of a mixed message,” Messinger said. “Last year, many students opted out. The biggest concern from parents and students was that lost instructional time.”

“If we shut the whole system down to make it more conducive to testing, it really is impactful for a number of other students,” he continued. “That is the balance we are trying to find.”

The Colorado Department of Education is aware of the Boulder Valley situation and department staff is concerned about anything that might discourage kids from taking state tests, said Dana Smith, a spokeswoman. She said staff looked at how the district approached instruction in advanced high school courses during testing and found it was “probably OK.”

But even if it were problematic, the 2015 testing law does not spell out potential consequences for schools and districts that don’t comply.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said he’s received dozens of emails from parents in Boulder about the district’s handling of this spring’s tests. Johnston said last year’s testing legislation — he was a key player in seeing it through — was intended to ensure students who opt out don’t suffer retaliation or pressure from school administrators.

“It was not intended to create an environment that makes it uncomfortable for kids to take tests,” Johnston told Chalkbeat. “I’m worrying that they’re punishing kids for opting in.”

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a supporter of state assessments, was more pointed in her criticism of Boulder Valley’s practices.

“I can’t think of a more critical time than in high school to know if a kid is on track,” Frickey Saito said. “To penalize those kids and families who want to know they’re on track is outrageous.”

The approach in Denver Public Schools reflects the district’s support for testing and accountability.

DPS has underscored the value of testing in newsletters and conversations with parents and students while stressing the right balance of time spent on instruction and testing, officials said.

“We’ve essentially tried to be proactive in having conversations with those students and with parents to try to change what could be the lower participation rates,” said Rochanda Jackson, the district’s assessment administration manager. “We are trying to get out the message that his information (from state tests) is worthwhile, even though it may not seem that way.”

What happened with the relatively few DPS students who opted out of tests and still came to school varied by building, Jackson said. Study hall was one avenue schools could choose.

Though DPS historically boasts high test participation rates, pockets of resistance exist. Lynn Roberts, a Denver parent active in the opt-out movement, criticized the district for what she considers to be a heavy-handed approach that makes it harder for parents to opt-out.

“I don’t think they are going to advertise a parent’s legal right to opt out,” said Roberts, an elementary school mom and former teacher. “And I believe they are very invested in getting test scores and making decisions based on test-based accountability for teachers and schools.”.

The district, for example, shut down an online opt-out form ahead of this spring’s tests, she pointed out. District officials say that was done to make sure opt-out figures were being accurately tracked, and parents could still opt-out by emailing or talking to principals.

Other districts provided online options for opting out, as well, including Boulder Valley, Douglas County and Cherry Creek. All those districts saw large volumes of opt-outs in 2015.

“Obviously in Douglas County we do feel students are often over-tested,” Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen said. “Our message is very consistent with that. We absolutely believe in parents and their choice to excuse children from state mandated testing, and we support that.”

Todd Engdahl of Capitol Editorial Services contributed information to this report.

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.