No exit

State has limited flexibility on testing, feds say

Colorado has few options if policymakers want to create a more flexible state testing system, or one that lets districts make their own assessment choices, the State Board of Education learned Wednesday.

The board has been paying a lot of attention to testing ever since 2014 TCAP results were released in August, trying to make its voice heard in the growing state debate over the issue. (See this story for background on board member views.)

Among the key questions in that debate is whether Colorado should reduce testing to only what’s required by the federal government, if it’s possible to test just sample groups of students and if districts can have flexibility to choose their own tests.

A growing number of districts have raised questions about their testing options, Department of Education officials say.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond formally posed some key questions to the U.S. Department of Education, and the board was briefed on the answers at its monthly meeting. It wasn’t what some members wanted to hear.

Here’s a summary of the questions and answers. Read the full DOE letter here – warning, the language is pretty dense. Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen called it “a weighty document and somewhat difficult to work through.”

What are the federal requirements for frequency, grade levels and content?

The department and the board basically learned what they already know: that all children must be tested in language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science tests are required once at each level of K-12 education. Colorado tests considerably more than those requirements – get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.

Do states have to give the same tests to all students?

Yes. A state “may not assess only a sample of students, even if that sample is representative of students in each LEA (local education agency – jargon for ‘district’) or the state as a whole,” read the letter. (The exception to this is that a separate test can be used for students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.”)

“That’s a big issue that we get a lot of questions about. Sampling is not allowed,” Owen said.

Can a state use a combination of state and local tests?

The DOE letter says there’s “some flexibility” on this issue, but it goes on to detail a long list of difficult regulatory hurdles that would to be jumped for this to happen.

What happens if a state doesn’t meet federal requirements?

It could lose a lot of federal money, particularly Title I funds for low-income students and IDEA money for special education students. Prompted by a question from SBE chair Paul Lundeen, Owen said the worst-case estimate “easily” could be $500 million for Colorado. (The DOE letter outlines a long list of “progressive discipline” steps that would be used before the cash would be cut off.)

Can the secretary of education waive testing requirements?

No and yes – sort of. Testing requirements cannot be waived for individual districts. At the state level, “the secretary would likely not lightly waive such core requirements absent compelling reasons that their waiver would benefit students,” read the letter.

“We’ve reached far and wide to find any loophole.” Owen said.

“Wow,” said Lundeen, thanking CDE staff for pushing the DOE for answers. “This is an issue present in the minds of every educator in Colorado today.”

Hammond indicated he thinks CDE didn’t find any loopholes and that current federal law doesn’t give states many options. “The key to this is reauthorization of ESEA,” the main body of federal education law that a divided Congress hasn’t been able to act on. He also said changing the testing system might draw scrutiny from DOE’s civil rights office.

“With the legislation we have we’re stuck. … We basically ran out of options for next year,” Hammond said, referring to the full rollout of the new online PARCC tests in the spring of 2015.

Lundeen, who’s leaving the board because he’s running unopposed for a seat in the state House, urged the board and the department to keep researching alternatives to PARCC. Lundeen is not a fan of the current system.

He also noted that earlier this year the board passed a resolution urging the state withdraw from PARCC (see story). Denver member Elaine Gantz Berman reminded him that the vote was 4-3. The legislature paid no mind to that resolution.

Testing is expected to be a key education issue for the 2015 legislature. The 2014 legislative session more or less evaded the issue by creating a task force to study testing. (See this Chalkbeat story for the latest on what that group is doing.)

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.