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.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

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