Test anxiety

Testing opt-out bill morphing into testing study

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The House Education Committee considered a testing bill in the ornate Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Capitol's largest hearing room.

Momentum is growing at the Capitol to launch a study of K-12 standardized testing, but lawmakers and interest groups first have to negotiate how that study would be completed.

The impetus for the study is House Bill 14-1202, which originally proposed allowing districts to opt out of certain aspects of state standardized tests. (Get details of the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

The bill was a non-starter in that form, even while educator and public testing anxiety has grown as new early literacy assessments have rolled out and as the 2015 launch of new statewide online tests nears.

Education reform advocates and state education officials fear that allowing districts to opt out would be disruptive for schools and the state’s systems for rating districts and schools and evaluating teachers. There’s also concern that allowing waivers could threaten federal NCLB requirements.

But some legislators believe testing anxieties can’t be ignored.

“This issue has been escalating and escalating and I think we’ve reached the tipping point,” Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday afternoon.

So sponsor Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, arrived at the committee’s hearing Monday afternoon with a “strike below” amendment in his pocket, language that replace the opt-out language with a proposed testing study. (“Strike below” is statehouse jargon for replacing all language below a bill’s title and boilerplate introduction with new provisions.)

The amendment actually didn’t get much discussion during the three-hour hearing. Hamner let the hearing run its normal course and took testimony from two dozen witnesses, most critical of the state’s current lineup of standardized tests.

“We feel like we’re getting to a point where we’re spending more time testing than instructing,” said Liz Fagen, superintendent of the Douglas County Schools. “One of our goals is to measure things that aren’t measured on standardized tests.” The idea for HB 14-1202 originated with the Dougco board and also is supported by the Mesa 51 district board in Grand Junction.

Doug Superintendent Liz Fagan
Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen

Asked what she thought of just doing a study, Fagen said, “Any movement is positive movement.”

“What we’re looking for is not an escape from accountability,” said Kevin Larsen, president of the Dougco board. “We want the freedom and flexibility to use assessments that matter for our kids.”

Several witnesses were members of a group named Speak for Cherry Creek, which includes parents and teachers from that district and elsewhere.

Paul Trollinger, chair of the math department at Cherry Creek High School, was highly critical of the coming PARCC multi-state tests, saying, “There has to be a better assessment model.” He said the current testing system has “taken the joy out of school for teachers as well as students.

After Elizabeth district Superintendent Doug Bissonette gave testimony critical of testing, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, asked if he believed there should be no statewide tests.

“We have the view that we should take fewer of them,” said Bissonette.

Murray and several other Republican committee members raised concerns that tinkering with the testing system would undercut education reforms passed in recent years.

About the only witness who wasn’t critical of tests was Luke Ragland of Colorado Succeeds, the business-oriented education reform group.

He said House Bill 14-1202 as introduced “would fundamentally cripple every aspect of our state’s accountability measures.” He said the group doesn’t have a position on doing a study.

While agreeing that “there is room for improvement” in the testing system, he added, “It’s easy to get swept up in anti-testing fervor. … What gets measured gets done.”

The committee took a break after testimony ended, and then Hamner announced that consideration of amendments and a vote would be delayed until the committee’s scheduled Wednesday morning meeting.

“I think it’s really important we get this bill right,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I’m confident we will be by Wednesday.”

Scott’s proposed study amendment would require the State Board of Education to appoint a “working group” (primarily representing various education interest groups) to study proposed assessment timelines, costs, impact of tests on classroom instructions, feasibility of letting districts opt out, extension of testing timelines and the feasibility of allow parents to opt students out of testing.

Hamner said questions about task force membership, data sources, cost of the study and other issues need to be negotiated before the committee can vote on the amended bill.

The Department of Education already has hired WestEd, an education consultancy, to review district implementation of new tests this year and next, but that study won’t cover all the issues outlined in Scott’s proposal.

Monday’s hearing was more low-key than last Thursday’s Senate Education Committee session on Senate Bill 14-136, which lasted for more than six hours and took testimony from more than 40 witnesses. The committee ended up killing the bill, which would have set a one-year timeout for implementation of state content standards and new tests. (Get more details in this story.)

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.