Are Children Learning

Bye-bye bubble sheets: New Hampshire’s innovative approach to testing appeals to Indiana, other states

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in an English-learner class at Southport High School work on an assignment during the last period of the day.

As Indiana awaits recommendations from a committee that’s trying to figure out what student exams will look like after 2017, one idea out of New Hampshire is capturing the attention of educators.

New Hampshire’s “performance tasks” are considered some of the most innovative standardized tests in the country, but they don’t look much like standardized tests at all.

The new pilot program in the Granite State — called Performance Assessment of Competency Education or PACE — moves away from the computerized testing and multiple-choice bubble sheets that have been the backbone of annual state exams for decades.

In their place, the PACE program asks kids in the eight pilot districts to do “performance tasks” throughout the school year to show deep understanding of the subjects they’re studying.

For example, while a traditional geometry exam might ask students to solve math problems and even require them to show how they calculated their answer, New Hampshire now asks them to complete complex problems applied to real-word situations that require a range of skills and knowledge they’ve been learning in class.

“We asked the kids to be a town planner, and as part of that planning board they are asked to design two towers that use solids,” said Lee Sheedy, a New Hampshire high school geometry teacher who’s been working on the new test questions since the pilot began in 2014. “One would be a simple solid and the other had to be a compound solid. They then write a proposal to the town recommending one of the towers.”

To complete the task, students must draw models, do calculations, analyze results and write a proposal all in one exercise, Sheedy said.

Students in the pilot districts take the Smarter Balanced exam — a more traditional standardized test that is used in more than a dozen states — in third-grade English, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade English and math. All high-school juniors take the SAT.

In the rest of the grades, students must complete performance tasks in math, English and science throughout the year according to where those tasks fall in the curriculum. Some of the tasks are “local,” which help districts measure student progress at certain points in the academic year, but others are “common” which can be compared across districts.

Once the tasks are completed, the classroom teachers grade them. “Common” tasks are scored and then validated by the state against predetermined sample answers.

For both common and local questions, teachers are trained for about two weeks over the course of the year by their peers to use the scoring guides to grade student answers. Then, for the common questions, teachers compare their scoring processes to those of teachers’ from other schools and districts to ensure they are accurate. Final scores are reported to the state for accountability purposes.

For the water tower problem, there were four possible scores a student could receive and three main areas where they needed to show work: models and scale drawings, calculations and mathematical strategy and communication, analysis and recommendation.

Kathleen Cotton, a curriculum and instruction coach in Sheedy’s district in Rochester, New Hampshire, said that although there is extra work involved on the front end, the performance tasks give teachers information they can use immediately.

“You look at some of this high-stakes testing that we have, and it really is not engaging at the time because the students don’t really have any buy-in except of that one score at the end,” Cotton said.

Throughout the pilot, Sheedy said his students have been more engaged than they were taking traditional exams. He’s never seen kids so focused as when they are working on the new types of tests.

“When you give students a real world problem, you allow them to be creative, you allow them to think critically,” Sheedy said. “They get incredibly motivated. If you walked into my room during PACE you could hear a pin drop.”

He’s also been impressed by how much by how much developing the tasks has helped him as a teacher.

“When you let teachers … get out of their classrooms and you look at student work and you talk about it, teachers become better teachers,” Sheedy said. “Their ability to instruct and assess, it increases exponentially. I have grown more as a teacher since I’ve been doing PACE than any other thing I’ve been doing in the classroom over the last 12 years.”

The teacher-led work in designing and learning to grade the tasks was significant. Teams of teachers worked on the questions themselves and the scoring guides to grade them.

The New Hampshire experiment is making ripples across the country as more and more states are looking for alternatives to traditional once-a-year testing methods.

States looking for new options are encouraged by changes to federal testing regulations that are expected next year when the No Child Left Behind Act is replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law still requires every state to create an accountability system that measures annual student performance, but this law allows more flexibility. As many as seven states could be chosen to try new, innovative exams.

The work to completely change a testing system isn’t easy, and for larger states with more diverse student populations, varied funding across districts and stricter accountability systems, like Indiana, it’s not clear if this model would see the the same kind of success that it’s seen in New Hampshire.

It’s also not clear if Indiana education officials are going to even pursue an innovation pilot under ESSA, although state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning have expressed interest in New Hampshire’s model.

Many Indiana educators say they’re frustrated with years of ISTEP exams that have seen major delays, results that don’t do much to guide instruction and computer testing glitches. Some say they’re ready to try something new, and state officials agree.

For now, said Danielle Shockey, Indiana’s deputy state superintendent, the state will focus on its work with the new testing committee before it gets involved in a new federal initiative.

“There’s a lot left to be learned about that innovation pilot,” Shockey said.

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.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.