End of an era

Colorado backing away from PARCC English and math tests, forging its own path

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

Colorado will begin shifting away from standardized tests developed as part of a controversial multi-state effort and toward tests developed mostly by Colorado educators.

The move, one consequence of a contract announced Wednesday by the state education department, will end Colorado’s membership in PARCC, one of two multi-state testing collectives that were supposed to allow for easy comparison across states but have fallen short of that promise.

However, Colorado will likely keep using some PARCC questions in the math and English tests given to students in grades three through eight, said Joyce Zurkowski, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of assessment. Doing so would ensure the state could track student academic growth data and continue rating schools without pause.

“We’re not tossing everything out and starting from scratch,” Zurkowski said. But “we are expecting that Colorado educators will be much more involved throughout the development process — and we’re going to need more Colorado educators to be involved in the process.”

The break from PARCC grew out of a December directive from the State Board of Education that the education department find a vendor that could reduce testing time, provide results within 30 days and give the state authority over test questions and administration policies.

That effectively ruled out sticking with PARCC because Colorado is but one founding member of the group’s governing board and can’t dictate all terms of the test.

State education officials said the multi-year transition on the math and English tests will begin next spring and should cause little disruption to classrooms.

State officials announced Wednesday that the multinational testing and technology company Pearson had won a competitive bidding process to administer the math and English tests. Pearson administers the current PARCC tests along with the state’s science and social studies tests, which are given annually to students in one grade in elementary, middle and high school.

“Because Pearson has been already providing the testing services for CMAS (the state’s tests) for a number of years, the transition to the new contract should be seamless for educators and students,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Educators and students are familiar with Pearson’s systems, so this will allow them to continue to concentrate on teaching and learning the Colorado Academic Standards, which is the content assessed by the tests.”

Results from next year’s tests will be comparable to past CMAS results because the standards, test questions and scoring are not dramatically changing, officials said.

Colorado has already changed math and English testing twice in the past decade, making comparing past results extremely difficult — if not impossible. Officials say it won’t be the case now because this is essentially a contract change. However, more significant test changes may need to be considered after the state’s academic standards revision process is completed in 2018.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who led the effort to abandon PARCC, was critical of the decision to continue using Pearson as the state’s testing administrator.

He pressed the department to ensure Pearson could deliver on the board’s directive, especially limiting testing time to eight hours and delivering results quickly.

“It simply can’t run on for days or weeks as it did,” he said, referring to the amount of time some schools needed to complete the tests.

A 13-member panel comprised of Colorado school administrators and education department staff reviewed bids from Pearson and one other company, Questar.

Pearson, the world’s largest textbook and testing company, has been criticized for its extensive lobbying practices to win business from states and school districts.

Zurkowski said the panel choose Pearson because of its user friendliness, superior technology to provide interactive question online and data privacy protections.

“Knowing our current legislation, and our board’s priorities in that area, we couldn’t go backward,” Zurkowski said, referring to Pearson’s ability to protect student data.

Reaction of the state’s announcement was mixed.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of the nonprofit education reform group Climb Higher Colorado, said the state’s decision was another step toward re-engaging families in the state’s testing system.

“We are seeing continued buy-in to our system of statewide assessments as a result of ongoing, thoughtful adjustments made by our state board, state Department of Education and legislature,” she said in a statement. “Most importantly, these changes simultaneously protect rigorous assessments aligned to the education standards and ensure continuity for our students, educators and systems of accountability.”

Angela Engel, a leader in the testing opt-out movement and founder of the nonprofit Uniting4Kids, said the change did little to alleviate her concerns about the role of standardized testing in schools.

“This new direction by the State Board of Education is simply another version of a bad idea,” she said in a statement. “Colorado has already changed test vendors, test names, and test styles – all with the same failed outcomes. Innovation and equity require an entirely different approach than administering a test.”

The state’s testing contract with Pearson can be renewed annually until 2024.

Under federal law, states must give English and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. They must also test students in science once in elementary, middle and high school.

Results are used to measure school quality. Schools and districts that repeatedly fall short are subject to state-ordered improvement plans — a process that has taken center stage this year at the state Board of Education. Results in some cases are also used to measure teacher performance.

The state had to make decisions about the future of its testing system; the state’s multiple contracts with Pearson and the PARCC organization began expiring this spring.

Colorado was one of the founding members of PARCC, which formed to develop tests measuring student’s mastery of Common Core academic standards in math and English.

PARCC became the focus of protest two years ago as part of a wave of anti-testing backlash. Large number of high school students, especially, opted out of PARCC tests, starting a long conversation that resulted in legislation that reduced the volume of state tests.

Colorado will become the latest in a long line of founding members of PARCC to leave the consortium. Five states and Washington, D.C., remain as governing members.

Because Colorado is no longer a member of the consortium, it will have no say in the development of the new questions that the group develops. State officials said they plan to only purchase test items from PARCC that Colorado teachers helped develop.

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.