testing testing

Proposed bill that has governor’s blessing would drop PARCC from Colorado high schools

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

Colorado high school freshmen no longer would be required to take the state’s controversial standardized English and math tests under a bipartisan bill that has the governor’s support.

The state House Education Committee gave its unanimous approval Monday to legislation that would eliminate PARCC tests for freshmen, replacing them with tests that measure mastery of those subjects and line up with exams sophomores and juniors take now.

As part of broad reforms to the state’s testing system in 2015, lawmakers dropped PARCC testing for sophomores and juniors. Sophomores began taking the PSAT last year, and juniors will be required to take the SAT for the first time this spring.

The legislation —House Bill 1181 — would reduce the number of testing hours from about nine to two-and-a-half. It would also save the state about $650,000, according to a legislative budget analysis.

Sponsors and supporters of the bill believe the link to college and a recognizable brand such as the SAT would restore trust with families and students.

“This relevancy will provide students with motivation to take the test and do well on it,” Emily Richardson, director of government affairs for the STRIVE Prep charter network in Denver, told the House committee.

Monday’s committee hearing was the bill’s first legislative test and it faces several more hurdles to become law.

The legislation, sponsored by state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Paul Lundeen, grew out of years of work on testing that began with a committee studying the state’s testing system in 2014.

Since then, ninth-grade testing has been a sticking point in the testing reform debate. Lawmakers in both parties have tried to eliminate the testing mandate or make the test optional. But Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has promised to veto any bill that would do so.

“This is a piece of legislation that I think we can actually pass and make a meaningful change,” Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said. “That’s important in this building.”

Three other bills have been introduced this year to either eliminate or make ninth grade testing optional. Two of those bills were killed by the House committee Monday. A Senate committee is scheduled to consider the third later this week.

State Rep. Tim Leonard, an Evergreen Republican, is one of those lawmakers who wants to eliminate ninth grade testing altogether.

“Even the federal government recognizes the amount of standardized testing we do in the United States and Colorado goes too far,” Leonard said.

Federal law requires that students in grades three through eight be tested every year in English and math. States are also required to test students on those subjects at least once in high school. Under the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states may use the ACT or SAT to meet that requirement.

The Colorado PTA spoke in favor of all three bills that would reduce testing time, but the group said it favored rolling back to the federal minimum the most. Leonard’s bill would align Colorado’s system to the federal minimum.

“If everyone would just follow the federal minimum, we believe that students would be very willing to take those tests,” said former state Sen. Evie Hudak, the PTA’s legislative committee chairwoman.

There is evidence that shifting the entire high school testing system to a set of college entrance exams such as the SAT could turn the tide in students opting out in large numbers.

Lawmakers in 2015 eliminated PARCC testing in the 10th grade. Sophomores last spring took for the first time the PSAT, which is part of the SAT family, as their state-mandated test. Statewide participation rate for 10th graders jumped by 27 percentage points to 88 percent.

Only 73 percent of ninth graders took the 2016 PARCC tests.

Colorado has been an epicenter for the nationwide movement to opt students out of standardized tests. Critics generally argue that students spend too much time testing and believe the multi-state testing group PARCC is federal overreach.

The Obama administration incentivized states to adopt the Common Core State Standards in math and English and join a multistate testing group like PARCC, but did not mandate it.

Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said he favors using a college entrance-aligned test in ninth grade because it would move the state one step closer away from PARCC, a test he’s opposed since he served on the State Board of Education.

“This bill makes the ninth grade test meaningful,” he said. “It changes something that many see as a burden into an advantage.”

TNReady backlash

BREAKING: Tennessee lawmakers take matters into their own hands on TNReady testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State lawmakers are in session at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

It was an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill in Nashville and, in many ways, unprecedented.

After hearing reports of more testing problems with Tennessee’s standardized test in their schools back home, members of the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a sweeping measure to pull TNReady scores from this year’s accountability systems for teachers, students, schools, and districts.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam said he would sign the legislation.

The votes circumvented the legislature’s committee process but, after days of technical problems with the state’s return to online testing, lawmakers had reached a boiling point. They rose to their feet and, one after another, railed against the Department of Education and its testing company, Questar, for their oversight of the beleaguered test.

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At midday, the Senate and House convened a conference committee and, with members going back and forth to the governor’s office to confer, tacked on their amendment to a bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville.

“The camel was already loaded down heavy, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Smith said of more testing glitches on Thursday. “The circumstances were so extraordinary that going through the traditional committee process did not serve our teachers or students. That’s why we did what we did.”

What they did was pass a bill that would:

  • Let local school boards determine, between a range of 0 and 15 percent, what TNReady scores will count toward students’ final grades;
  • Prevent local districts from using the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers;
  • Ensure that none of this year’s TNReady data can be used to put a school on the “priority list” of lowest-performing schools eligible for state intervention; and
  • Nix the use of TNReady data in determining A-F ratings for schools, a system that’s beginning this fall

“It was clear many members of the General Assembly wanted to address concerns related to the recent administration of state assessments,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in a statement. “The governor understands these concerns and did not oppose the legislation.”

The decision will allow Tennessee to take a breath as it seeks to fix its broken testing system, which has been snakebit from the outset. In 2016, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ended up canceling most testing when TNReady’s new online platform collapsed under the weight of statewide testing on newly minted digital devices. The next year, Tennessee reverted to mostly paper-and-pencil tests, but there were scoring and score delivery issues under new vendor Questar.

This week, when a third year of testing launched, McQueen had been more confident under a gradual transition to online testing beginning with high school students. But on Monday, a login issue stopped testing in its tracks. Tuesday was worse, as Questar’s system shut down because of an alleged cyber attack.

“What you heard today is that, until we get testing right, we want to make sure our teachers, students and schools are not impacted,” Smith told Chalkbeat when the dust had settled on Thursday.

“We’re still going to move forward with our accountability system. We’ll still see what the data shows this year. But we want to make sure the data isn’t skewed. We want to make sure it’s reliable.”

News of the likely pause drew immediate cheers from teacher groups.

“The legislature made sure students, teachers and schools were protected against the failures of TNReady,” said Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, commending lawmakers for taking “decisive action.”

“We are very pleased legislators ensured that employment or compensation decisions based on the data cannot be used,” added JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

But others warned that systems for holding teachers and schools accountable are key to ensuring an equitable education for all students.

“While we are dismayed that there were issues with the online TNReady tests, we believe that assessments are the clearest way to gauge what students know, and how well schools are serving all students,” said Gini Pupo-Walker of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

“Tennessee has made great progress by raising expectations, creating high standards and implementing TNReady,” Pupo-Walker said, “and it is important to continue to assess students every year on their mastery in the core content areas.”

Correction: April 19, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that both the Senate and the House approved the bill on Friday. A previous version said the Senate had recessed and would vote Monday on the House-approved bill.

exceptions to the rule

The highs and lows of Colorado education are spotlighted in ‘The Outliers’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file
Students at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary collaborate on a literacy lesson.

The Boulder Valley School District serves a largely affluent population with highly educated parents. In Sterling on the Eastern Plains, fewer than 1 in 6 adults has a bachelor’s degree. But both the Boulder district and the Valley Re-1 district serving Sterling send a large portion of their graduates to college, and few of them need remediation classes when they get there.

Those are just two of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado that examines both exemplary and struggling districts. A Plus focuses on data analysis to drive public support for policy changes. This is the second year that A Plus has released “The Outliers,” which is intended to help educators find models to emulate.

The report notes success stories like DSST: Stapleton High School, part of the Denver-based charter network, which posted the state’s highest average SAT scores for white students, black students and students from low-income families. Its Hispanic students also posted SAT scores that were among the highest in the state.

Among the report’s nuanced findings, the tiny Sheridan district south of Denver sends relatively few students to college, with many later needing remediation. But the district has made big strides in the graduation rate of homeless students, who make up 25 percent of its students. In 2016, 64 percent of its homeless students graduated, compared with 53 percent for the state and 42 percent in Denver.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The numbers only tell so much.

The report shows schools where students from low-income families — as measured by free- and reduced-price lunch rates — do well on elementary math tests or middle school language arts, and where Hispanic students graduate at high rates or have good SAT scores. However, it doesn’t explain just how those schools succeed.

CEO Van Schoales said A Plus Colorado isn’t able to visit all districts and schools to research what they’re doing right, but he hopes the report can still be a resource for principals and superintendents.

“Folks need to spend the time to get to understand the places where most kids are getting to standards or graduating or showing growth,” he said. “There can be an echo chamber in education around the cool places or what’s hot. This report is the data. There are a lot of places doing great work.”

Small districts are just as capable of serving at-risk students as large ones.

The first year of “The Outliers” only looked at the 76 districts serving at least 1,000 students. This year, the report looks at roughly 120 districts with publicly available data. Small districts are more likely to be outliers in both good and bad ways. With fewer students overall, it doesn’t take many students to significantly boost or drag down achievement percentages.

The researchers found small school districts serving low-income and diverse student populations and getting good outcomes.

“A lot of school districts think that the bigger you are, the more capacity you have and the more good you can do, and our report shows that that is not necessarily true,” Schoales said. “You can find school districts doing well by low-income kids all over Colorado and ones that are not.”

Online schools need a lot more scrutiny.

The report found that students in online schools do worse even than students in low-performing brick-and-mortar schools, and that when districts open online schools, it pulls down districtwide performance.

The Byers district east of Denver, where 82 percent of students attend online schools, and Colorado Digital BOCES, a cooperative collection of online schools, showed some of the lowest academic growth in the state, the report found.

“In theory, it sounds great,” but most online schools are not working for their students, Schoales said.

This is not a new concern. A 2016 investigation by Education Week raised serious questions about the operation of GOAL Academy online schools. But the sector continues to expand, with A Plus calling it “one of the fastest growing segments within the Colorado educational ecosystem.”

Colorado suppresses so much student data that it’s hard to get a complete picture.

Colorado has strict data privacy rules that lead to the suppression of student achievement information from small batches and sometimes even larger groups of students. As a result, A Plus Colorado said it doesn’t know whether the 300 black students in the Boulder Valley School District or the 366 students in Manitou Springs who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch are meeting grade-level expectations.

That’s because the state redacts scores whenever fewer than four students score at a particular proficiency level, and then shields additional scores from other groups and even other schools to further obscure the data.

A Plus says this 3-year-old policy makes it impossible to discern how certain groups of students are performing.

Complete test data is available to district officials, but Schoales said that’s not good enough. If they and the public can’t compare among school districts, they don’t know how much better they could be doing.

“The public and policy makers need to know what’s working and where we can learn from,” Schoales said.

Read the rest of the report, with lots of district- and school-level information, here: