Testing Time

The new-look SAT is here, ushering in more changes to how Colorado tests kids

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

At STRIVE Excel, a northwest Denver charter high school, students Friday shuffled through the hallways in pajamas. Some wrapped themselves in cozy fleece blankets.

School leaders hoped this spirit day would send a message to juniors: Get plenty of rest this weekend. A big test is coming.

On Tuesday, 11th graders across Colorado for the first time will take the new-look SAT, which is replacing the ACT as the mandatory state test for that grade. The results, like those from the ACT in years past, will factor into the state’s accountability system for school and districts.

Following a nationwide trend in standardized testing, the updated SAT puts less emphasis on rote memorization — students won’t need to know the definition of “garrulous” or other infamous “SAT words” — and puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking. There are fewer questions and students will spend more time explaining their work.

The shift from the ACT to the SAT comes as the state continues to refine its testing system amid a public backlash against standardized tests. The results from those tests are used in part to rate the quality of each school.

“The SAT is really about college,” said Ben Lewis, the principal at STRIVE Excel principal. “It’s a much easier argument for kids than a complicated accountability system.”

Colorado’s adoption of the SAT is the byproduct of a 2015 legislative compromise forged during a months-long debate about testing.

The ACT had been a required test for 11th graders since 2011. In 2014, the state began requiring students in that grade to also take state PARCC tests in math and English.

The backlash — at least in some communities — was immediate. Thousands of students concentrated in high-performing, wealthy suburban districts and some rural areas skipped the PARCC tests in protest. That caused state lawmakers to reconsider how it tests in high school.

Legislation in 2015 eliminated PARCC for both 10th and 11th graders. After intense lobbying by The College Board, makers of the SAT, lawmakers also decided to open to competitive bidding the 10th and 11th grade testing that would remain.

A panel of educators commissioned by the state education department picked the PSAT for 10th graders and the SAT for 11th graders.

Those teachers and testing experts found the SAT better aligned to the state’s academic standards, which include the Common Core in math and English. The panel also felt the SAT offered more and cheaper resources to schools to help students prepare.

Some test prep materials are even free.

“We’ve never been able to budget a teacher to do test prep,” said Julie Knowles, assessment director for the Garfield School District in western Colorado, who was part of the panel that selected the SAT. “So the free resources have been a boon.”

Garfield’s two high schools have purchased additional SAT-aligned tests for lower grades to help track student progress. The two schools spent a combined $3,069, or $8.50 per student, for each test.

The decision to move to the PSAT and SAT in the spring of 2016 was announced just before Christmas in 2015. It sparked an outcry among school officials across the state.

School leaders, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull, said the timing of the decision was unacceptable: Schools had already been preparing students to take the ACT that spring.

As a compromise, the department agreed to hold off on moving to the SAT until 2017.

Cherry Creek had other cause for concern: Like some other school districts, it was already using companion tests, known as Aspire, published by the ACT to track student learning through multiple grades — and, ideally, setting students up for success on the ACT.

The local use of the Aspire tests, which the suburban Denver school district decided to maintain despite the shift to the SAT, helps maintain a long-term dataset amid changes in testing at the state level, said Judy Skupa, an assistant superintendent in Cherry Creek.

“With the volatility of the state assessment system, it was difficult to monitor students,” she said. “That’s why we went to an internal system. Our data won’t be subject to political winds.”

Policymakers aren’t done tinkering with the state’s testing system.

Lawmakers want to continue expanding the SAT’s reach in high school. If a bipartisan compromise becomes law this year, ninth graders would stop taking the PARCC test this year and begin taking a version of the PSAT next spring.

And because the state’s contract with PARCC is up this year, the state education department is seeking bids to find a new test for the state’s elementary and middle schools.

“There’s a lot of flux coming in the next several years,” said Garfield’s Knowles, adding that her parents trust the SAT, and as a result testing is up at her schools. “We don’t have to sell it. They see it as a gateway for kids who want to go to college. Even if they want to go on a vocational path.”

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

PHOTO: Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

PHOTO: Source: Tennessee Department of Education

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”