Who Is In Charge

New testing system starts to take shape

Educators working on a new state testing system envision a continuously updated “electronic report card” that will measure the college and career readiness of every Colorado student from the earliest grades.

The State Board of Education was briefed Wednesday on the work of five subcommittees of experts that have been studying different aspects of testing.

Jo O’Brien, the assistant education commissioner who’s overseeing the process, said the subcommittees see an assessment system that “measures one thing – college and career readiness.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” said education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

A 2008 state law requires a new testing system to replace the current CSAP tests, although the 2010 legislature extended the deadline for the switchover because of budget problems. It’s expected that a new testing system won’t roll out any earlier than the spring of 2014.

The most intriguing part of O’Brien’s presentation was the description of a personalized online “dashboard” that would compile student test scores – and other work including student portfolios – and allow students and parents to track college and career readiness throughout students’ school years.

The subcommittees see the new system as “online, fast and lean,” O’Brien said.

The system will include an end-of-year test that can be used for school and district accountability but also likely will include interim or formative tests at intervals during the school year, designed to help teachers gauge student progress and take corrective action as necessary. The testing subcommittees see those tests as being chosen by districts, O’Brien said.

The annual assessments would be in math, reading, writing and science in 3rd through 8th grades, she said, although some subcommittee members also are pushing to add social studies. In the higher grades, tests (perhaps end-of-course exams) would be given to 9th and 11th graders, and a college placement test such as the ACT would continue to be offered.

Tests would be designed to measure both content knowledge and learning and behavior skills, O’Brien said.

Board members had plenty of questions.

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, asked, “Has there been consideration of the amount of time that will be required of teachers?”

O’Brien said a technical advisory committee that’s also involved in the process already has raised that question.

State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District
State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District

Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, noted that parents of younger children aren’t necessarily thinking about college readiness – “That’s not part of our culture” – and said schools will need good parent communications when rolling out a new system. “How do we make parents comfortable with what we’re doing?”

Commenting on the issue of letting districts choose their own interim tests, Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, said, “You don’t want to just turn them loose” without some guidance and standards.

The subcommittees’ suggestions aren’t the last word on a new state testing system. Another body, the Assessment Stakeholders Committee, will discuss the issue at Sept. 20 and Oct. 15 meetings and make a recommendation to the state board. The department also is running a series of 13 public meetings around the state from Sept. 27 to Oct. 13 to gather comment.

The state board will receive the recommendations on Nov. 10 and then consider adoption of specifications for the new system on Dec. 8. (Also, the board has Oct. 21 and Nov. 29 sessions with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to discuss assessments and coordination between K-12 and higher education.)

That decision won’t include adoption of specific tests; that’s further down the road. It’s considered likely that Colorado may chose tests from one of the two multi-state groups that are developing new tests with the help of recent federal Race to the Top grants.

Budget skies getting darker?

Vody Herrmann, CDE school finance chief, told the board, “We certainly have the potential of further reductions in funding for K-12 education” in the current budget year.” She said state budget director Todd Saliman is urging school districts not to spend their federal Edujobs money until they have a better idea if the state will need to make K-12 cuts in the middle of the current budget year. “I’ve been sending that message out and asking people not to make quick decisions unless they have other reserves,” Herrmann said.

Colorado recently was certified for about $160 million from the Edujobs program, which is designed to save school district jobs. Herrmann said some 60 districts have filed the paperwork for their money.

The likelihood of budget cuts will become at least a bit clearer Monday when state economists submit quarterly revenue forecasts to the legislative Joint Budget Committee. Herrmann also reported that CDE is still trying to figure out how to help a handful of districts with cash-flow problems related to proposed Amendment 61, which would bar the state from incurring debt.

For fear of legal problems if 61 passes, the state has canceled a no-interest loan program that some districts have used to pay bills until local property tax revenues are collected each spring. The state has been able to help districts that receive substantial amounts of state aid by accelerating those payments. But, a few districts have sufficient property tax revenues and don’t need state support, so they’re in a bind.

Superintendent Linda Chapman of Estes Park, one of those districts, said the Estes schools will have to tap $4 million in reserves and use a bank line of credit to pay bills until property tax revenues come in next spring. “This is a ludicrous situation,” she said.

On Thursday the board will consider a resolution opposing 61 and two companion measures, Amendment 60 and Proposition 101. (See our Election Data Center for information on the three measures and this story for more background on district cash-flow problems.)

Denver innovation applications approved

The board voted unanimously to give innovation designation to two additional schools in the Denver Public Schools.

The designation gives Martin Luther King Early College Innovation School in Green Valley Ranch and Whittier K-8 Innovation School at 2480 Downing St. waivers from a wide variety of state laws and rules and from some provisions of the district’s union contract. Such waivers give a school freedom in hiring, employee compensation, curriculum, scheduling and other matters.

A school has to demonstrate staff and community support for changes before innovation status can be granted, and the documentation and application process is a lengthy one.

Five other district schools already have innovation status. The only non-DPS school with innovation waivers is Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, which received them from the board recently.

(Read the Martin Luther King application and the Whittier application.)

Statehouse rumors already swirling

She wasn’t naming names, but CDE lobbyist Anne Barkis told the board she’s heard that some legislators may be interested in trying to tinker with Senate Bill 10-191, the still-controversial educator effectiveness law, during the 2011 session.

But, she added, “I’m hearing recently that that might not be as likely.” And, Barkis noted, “We have an election coming and who knows … some of these things are being discussed by people who are in hot races and may not be there to carry the bills.”

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.