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.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.