testing ground

City may let some schools swap state exams for new, online tests next year

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Some New York City schools could jump ahead of the rest of the state next year by taking new, online Common Core tests instead of the current state exams, according to city officials.

While New York is part of a group of states that helped develop the new, online tests, state policymakers have decided not to administer them when they are first made available next spring. But education officials in New York City are considering asking the state for waivers that would give some schools the option of taking the new tests next year, according to Department of Education officials and a school administrator briefed on the plan.

Beginning next month, 95 city schools will take pilot versions of the new test, which was designed by a consortium of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. At a meeting last month with leaders of some of those schools, Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg also said the city could ask for waivers if the field tests go well, according to an attendee.

“He kind of said if we can prove it’s feasible, then it’s something they would push really hard to do,” said Gary Shevell, assistant principal of Manhattan’s P.S. 116, which is giving the pilot test to its fifth-grade students in June.

But even as the city explores ways to begin transitioning to the new tests, serious barriers stand in the way of their full rollout across the city and state. The state has noted that the assessments would require new technology, more testing time, and different funding models, even as districts are still reeling from last year’s switch to Common Core-aligned tests, which sent proficiency rates plummeting.

“Even if PARCC is the best test out there,” said Ken Wagner, the state’s associate education commissioner, “is right now the best time to consider a change?”

After adopting the Common Core standards several years ago, New York and the other PARCC member states set out to develop corresponding tests using funds from a $186 million federal grant. The computer-based tests were designed to deliver student results more quickly than past exams, to allow for cross-state score comparisons, and to better engage students — for instance, they feature videos alongside reading passages and drag-and-drop answers. (PARCC will offer both online and paper-and-pencil versions of the test next year, and both kinds of tests are being piloted in city schools this year.)

Despite its investment in the new tests, New York hedged its bets by also creating its own Common Core exams, which it administered to schools for the first time last year. That put New York well ahead of most other PARCC states, which are waiting until 2015, when the PARCC assessment is ready to go, to give their first Common Core-aligned state tests.

State Education Commissioner John King suggested last summer that having its own Common Core tests gives New York flexibility in deciding when to switch to PARCC. Last fall, the state Board of Regents, which sets statewide education policy, officially put off that change by at least one year when it decided not to administer the PARCC tests in 2015.

Critics who felt the state was not ready to jump so quickly to another test, especially one requiring extensive technology, welcomed that decision. But the delay disappointed others, including critics of the current Pearson-made exams who believe the PARCC tests will better assess Common Core learning.

Lisa Ripperger, the principal of P.S. 234 in Tribeca who joined dozens of Manhattan principals in denouncing this year’s English tests, said the PARCC sample questions that have been released appear more closely aligned to the standards. She added that her school has already spent $100,000 buying laptops for students to take the new online exams.

“I always expected that we’d be taking the PARCC test next year,” she said. “It’s really infuriating.”

City officials seem aware that some schools here are equipped to administer the PARCC tests next year, even if many New York schools are not. For that reason, they are closely watching Massachusetts, which is planning to give districts the option of taking the state exams or the PARCC tests next year.

Districts that choose the new assessment will be exempted from repercussions if students’ scores decline, according to Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who added that the plan is still waiting for a sign-off from federal officials. The scores also won’t have repercussions for teacher evaluations next year, with the test results only being used to set score baselines to measure student growth in subsequent years, Chester said.

“We’re definitely intrigued by that idea,” said the New York City Department of Education official.

Still, New York faces steep challenges in transitioning to the PARCC assessments.

The online version of the test requires computer hardware, Internet bandwidth, and technological knowhow that many schools lack. There are workarounds: Schools can download the exam before administering it, and only one class at a time needs access to computers.

But many schools don’t even meet those minimum requirements. Only a quarter of city schools currently have enough devices to administer the online test, according to officials, and many of the devices schools do have are outdated. Getting schools statewide up to speed will take considerable time, said Wagner, the state education official.

“My guess is that it will be a multiyear process,” he said.

Costs are another concern. The current estimated price of the PARCC end-of-year tests is $29.50 per student for the online exams, which includes scoring costs. (The paper tests cost a few dollars more.) Right now, New York State only spends $13 per student on its tests, but it estimates that districts spend about $20 per student on scoring, which makes their total costs comparable to PARCC’s tests. Still, New York’s unusual cost-sharing model between the state and districts would complicate any switch to different exams.

A more serious hurdle may be the length of time that students spend on the PARCC tests. New York estimates that its math and English tests each last up to about three hours, depending on the grade level they are assessing. But students could spend up to six hours on both the math and English PARCC tests, though that time would be divided between separate performance-based and multiple-choice assessments, according to a presentation prepared by the state.

Testing time is now a legal matter, since the state budget deal included a cap on the amount of time students can spend taking state-mandated exams: 1 percent of annual instructional time, or about 11.4 hours. Laura McGiffert Slover, PARCC’s chief executive officer, said in an interview that the pilot tests would provide a clearer picture of the actual time the tests require, and added that she is confident the length will fall below New York’s 1-percent cap.

Amid the logistical puzzles, New York policymakers also face thorny political questions in switching to PARCC: Do they want to take on another new test so soon after sparking outrage with last year’s new and harder exams, which Commissioner King has defended as high quality? And are they ready to relinquish some authority over the way New York students are tested?

Meanwhile, critics of standardized tests and the consequences attached to them promise to continue their campaign against the state’s testing regime, even if it adopts new assessments.

“We do not see PARCC as an improvement,” said Nancy Cauthen, a member of the advocacy group Change the Stakes. “PARCC will be a new battleground for us.”

On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared:

Shrinking gaps

Denver Public Schools posts record gains on latest state tests

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference Thursday.

Denver students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.

It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.

Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”

Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percent increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.

Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.

Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.

A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.

Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.

“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.

The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.

Mixed results for reform efforts

Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.

The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.

But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.

Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.

Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.

“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”

He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”

Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.

McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.

McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.

While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.

There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”

In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.

Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.

The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.

Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.

But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.

Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.

“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.

Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.

“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”

Narrowing gaps

About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.

The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.

White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.

Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.

In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.

The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.

The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.

But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.