the end of parcc?

Time to find new, shorter standardized tests, state board directs education department

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and chairman Steve Durham, listen to public comment at the State Board of Education's September meeting.

The State Board of Education on Thursday directed the education department to find new standardized tests that take students less time and whose results will be delivered faster.

The board wants math and English tests that will take students in grades three through eight no more than eight hours to complete — slightly less time than current exams take, according to the state.

Colorado’s contract with the PARCC assessment, which the state has used for its federally required English and math test since 2015, expires after the current school year. Absent new legislation, the board is required to renew its contract with PARCC or find a new vendor for the spring of 2018.

The state board broached dumping the politically contentious PARCC exam before the contract expires, but did not act.

The board’s motion to have the department find a new test for grades three through eight was approved 5-1. Vice chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, was the lone no vote. Democrat Jane Goff of Lakewood missed the morning vote.

Ninth-graders also take PARCC tests. That the board did not address ninth grade testing in its motion means it’s likely the state will look to better align that test with the existing 10th and 11th grade tests. This spring, high school sophomores will take the PSAT and juniors will take the SAT as their mandated tests.

Board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said the goal for the board was “to have a test that will serve the needs of Colorado students first.” He added: “The test we have now serves the needs of adults — it doesn’t serve the needs of students.”

Thursday’s action comes on the eve of a change in partisan control of the board. Democrats will have a majority on the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Durham said in an interview that the timing of the motion was not politically motivated and pointed out that Democrat Val Flores voted with the board’s four other Republicans.

Durham said “there are plenty of votes to sustain it” after Democrat Rebecca McClellan joins the board next year, replacing Republican Debora Scheffel.

Schroeder said she is in favor of shorter tests and results that are back sooner but opposed the motion because she wanted an additional parameter that would have ensured the state would be able to measure student academic growth.

Academic growth measures how much a student learns each year compared to their academic peers. That data point is the bedrock of the state’s accountability system that rates school and district quality.

“We need to be able to maintain growth,” she said. “You throw that out and we totally undo our accountability system.”

The state’s accountability system is only now turning back on after a one-year pause due to the state’s adoption of PARCC.

Unlike bubble tests of the past, the computer-based PARCC was heralded as interactive and capable of rewarding students for critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Supporters of the test promised lighting-fast results that would be comparable across state lines because for the first time multiple states took the same test.

But critics of the test, including several members on the state board, have said the tests take too long to administer and results are too slow to arrive to make meaningful changes at schools. Some also believe the tests aren’t grade-level appropriate, and that the federal incentives to join one of the two multi-state testing groups eroded local control. The number of states giving PARCC also has withered.

The charge to find a new test will likely be met with mixed reactions.

Many teachers, principals and superintendents — especially from smaller school districts — decried the burden they said it placed on schools. The tests, which are between eight and nine hours long, sometimes took weeks for schools to complete because of access to limited technology at some schools.

And the results have been slow to return to the state, which officials attributed to the extra work needed to get established. Under the state’s last testing system, the TCAP, schools had their results back typically by August. The first year of PARCC, school-level results were released in December. This year they were released in September.

Some found those hardships worth it because the tests, they believed, were academically challenging and a modern measure of student learning.

Others will be upset about yet another change to the state’s testing system. A new test in the spring of 2018 would be the state’s third different test in five years.

The nonprofit organization that produces the PARCC tests could still bid to administer Colorado’s tests. But it would need to also ensure the department will have decision-making authority over the test’s design and administration policies.

Schroeder said she believes PARCC could meet those requirements.

And Durham said he believed a testing company would step forward to meet Colorado’s tight deadline on tests results.

“It’s been my experience that when you have a multimillion dollar contract, people figure out how to bid it,” he said.

The state board is expected to consider what to do about the state’s ninth grade test at a later date.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the state board does not intend change the PSAT and SAT tests given at high school. 

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.