State Board elections

Testing issue follows candidates on campaign trail

Ask candidates running for the State Board of Education this year what voters want to talk about and you generally get a quick answer – testing.

The four candidates for two contested seats all expect that the question of how much and what kind of standardized tests should be given will be a major issue for the new board and legislature that take office in 2015. The candidates have differing but nuanced views on the issue, but most of them are open to considering changes in the state’s assessment system.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviewed each of the four about testing and other key education issues. See summaries of their responses below, but first here’s a brief look at who’s running.

The candidates

District 3 – Republican incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction faces Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo in this sprawling district that covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo.

Neal is a former social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who sometimes is a swing vote on the state board. She’s been a strong advocate of increasing the size of the school trust lands permanent fund, which earns revenues from state lands. Roman is a former Pueblo 60 superintendent, has worked recently as a charter school consultant and is making his first run for elected office.

District 7 – Democratic incumbent Jane Goff of Arvada is a former Jefferson County foreign language teacher and administrator who also served as president of the Jefferson County Education Association. She’s being challenged by Republican Laura Boggs of Lakewood, a former Jeffco school board member who was a one-woman conservative minority before the board changed hands in the 2013 election.

Issues in District 3

Testing

Marcia Neal
Marcia Neal

“I think there are a lot of concerns around the PARCC tests,” Neal said. “It’s sort of this gigantic issue.” She says Colorado faces “a real dilemma” in what to do about its testing system.

“So far I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of balancing” testing and classroom instruction, she said She hopes the task force that’s studying the issue can suggest and good balance on testing changes.

Roman said, “Right now I think we need to stay with” current plans for full PARCC testing next spring. He likes online testing because it promises quicker results for teachers to use. And he said he’s open to considering changes such as sampling, where every student is not tested every year, and reducing state tests to federal minimums. “We’ve burdened our teachers with too much testing.”

Academic standards

Neal voted against Colorado adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 but said, “I’m very supportive of high academic standards.”

Roman said the state should stick with the current Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math. “These happen to be the ones that are in place, and I support them” but is open to changes in the future.

School finance

Henry Roman
Henry Roman

“I know we need more money,” Neal said, but she believes there isn’t a direct relationship between funding levels and student achievement. She’s opposed to raising school funding without detailed plans for how more money would be used.

“I think we need to address the negative factor,” Roman said, referring to the formula used by the legislature to set total district funding every year. “We need to find a way to get back the funding schools should have been receiving.”

School choice

“I’m very much in favor of choice,” Neal said, but she doubts tuition tax credits or vouchers are in the state’s future, saying, “I don’t think that’s something the courts are ready to do.”

“I’m not in support of vouchers,” Roman said. “I think our current school choice options are excellent,” adding that he feel’s it’s important that charters “accept all students and that their performance is as good or better” than traditional schools.

What voters are saying

Neal said, “90 percent of the time it’s, ‘Where do you stand on Common Core?’ It dominates the conversation.”

Roman said, “What I’m hearing a lot of is there’s too much testing, and for the most part there’s too much emphasis on the core academic subjects to the exclusion of other subjects.” He added, “I’m also hearing about lack of equitable funding.”

The State Board’s role

Asked about the board’s role relative to the governor and the legislature, Neal said, “It does have a role to play, but it doesn’t make policy decisions, and it probably shouldn’t. … People tend to ignore us and then when something happens they want us to fix it, and we can’t.”

Roman said, “I see it as a body that takes what the legislature has passed and puts it into policy and procedure.”

Both candidates are concerned about the volume of education legislation – “There’s no limit to what the state legislature passes,” Roman said. “I’ve gotten to that I sort of dread the legislative session,” Neal commented.

The Jeffco controversy

Neal said the situation has “gotten pretty muddled” with the combination of two issues, curriculum review and teacher-board differences over salaries. She said, “I understand the history concern” about AP U.S. History and said that as a teacher “I always tried to go down the middle.”

“A class should reflect history as objectively as possible,” Roman said, adding that he supports the new AP class.

Issues in District 7

Testing

Jane Goff
Jane Goff

“I think it’s a dilemma for everybody,” Goff says of K-12 testing. “I’m not hearing very much at all of let’s throw the whole thing out,” and said she’s willing to look at changes in the system, including reducing state tests back to federal minimums. But, she added, “Accountability is the hard part, the sticky wicket.” She supports current plans to use the PARCC tests.

Boggs discusses testing in the context of her strong support for local control, criticizing what she calls “a one-size-fits-all system” and saying “districts need to have flexibility” in testing – “while absolutely still holding the system accountable.”

Academic standards

Goff said she “absolutely” supports the current Colorado Academic Standards, thinks changing them now would be disruptive for districts. “The challenge is getting people to understand what it’s all about.”

Boggs thinks “We need a robust conversation about what the actual standards need to be. … Parents and community members need confidence in our standards, and there’s clearly not that now.”

School finance

Laura Boggs
Laura Boggs

Goff said, “I’m not a tax fan” and that voters need better explanation of how new revenues would be spent. Referring to Amendment 66, the defeated 2013 K-12 tax increase, she said, “I don’t think people really understood how that could benefit their school district and the state as a whole.” While she supports reduction of the negative factor, she added, “I can’t see any great benefit in restoring more money to schools is that hurts, say, health programs.”

Boggs faults legislators for not spending more money on K-12 during the 2014 session, given a large balance in the State Education Fund. She sees general voter support for local school tax measures (as opposed to defeat on A66) as evidence that citizens “want local control back.”

School choice

Goff said she’s comfortable with the quality of state charter school law and feels progress has been made with online schools but that continued work is needed to improve student achievement at online schools and some charters. She said she generally opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits but would be willing to consider such mechanisms for some special education students.

Boggs calls herself “a huge supporter” of choice and charter schools but has concerns about vouchers and tax credits. “A great public education system is a great equalizer, so I’m not really wild about proposals that take money out of the public school system.” She also said a statewide tax credit law could be “a little dicey because you are infringing on local control.”

What the voters are saying

“Number 1 right now is testing. That’s hot, it’s very hot,” Goff said. “It’s probably right up there with what’s going on in Jeffco.”

Boggs said, “The voters are telling me that our child are over-tested … the teachers are telling me that they don’t have the flexibility. … a one-size-fits-all education system is not something they’re interested in.”

The State Board’s role

Goff acknowledges that the board often is subordinate to the governor and legislature but thinks SBE members should take a more visible role on education issues and should show “more leadership.”

Boggs said the board should “get more energized in the conversation” about largely flat student achievement levels but stressed again “my passion is for the local control piece” of education.

The Jeffco controversy

Jefferson County is a big part of the 7th District, and both Goff and Boggs have close personal tied to the district.

Chalkbeat asked the candidates how controversies over the board could affect their race.

“Right now education is so hot and people are so passionate about it,” Goff said, adding that it’s hard to tell how that might translate into the state board race. “I think it’s still early to tell.”

Boggs was critical of the new AP U.S. history program but also of the original wording of the Jeffco board’s curriculum review resolution. She said the impact in the broader electorate is hard judge. “I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she added, given that primarily talks to people who are involved with education.

Board campaigns are quiet

State Board candidates usually campaign in the shadow of statewide and congressional candidates, with their big television ad budgets, and of the better-funded legislative hopefuls, who can blanket their districts with yard signs, literature drops and phone calls.

The 3rd District has 29 counties – many mountainous and thinly populated – and is especially challenging for SBE candidates.

“It’s very difficult,” said Neal. “I have not traveled as much as I’d like to.” She sends literature and yard signs to county GOP offices for distribution, and she’s planning newspaper and maybe radio ads in Pueblo and Durango, two population centers where she’s not as well known as in the Grand Valley. “I do what I have with the money I have and the time I’ve got.”

Roman said he’s been traveling extensively on the Western Slope in order to raise his profile there, attending candidate forums, coffees, Democratic events and “a lot of parades.”

Neal has raised about $11,500, while Roman’s campaign war chest was nearly $17,000 at the end of September.

In the 7th District Goff has been attending candidate forums and Democratic events, getting yard signs placed and literature distributed and is sending postcards to targeted Adams and Jefferson county neighborhoods. She’s also advertising in weekly community newspapers.

Boggs said, “I’m going to everything I’m invited to,” but that mailings aren’t planned “unless there’s a whole lot of money coming in that I don’t know about.”

Goff has a wide fund-raising edge with about $23,000 compared to Boggs’ $3,800.

Other districts, other members

Valentina Flores
Valentina Flores

The board’s 1st District seat, which primarily covers Denver, is also on the ballot this election. Retired educator Valentina Flores, who defeated a reform candidate in the June Democratic primary, is the only candidate on the ballot. (Learn more about her background and views in this earlier Chalkbeat Colorado story.) Flores will replace Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, who chose not to run again.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. Once he’s elected a GOP vacancy committee will choose a replacement for his District 5 board seat.

Three board members are in the middle of terms and not on the ballot: Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur (4th District), Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker (6th) and Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder (2nd).

About the State Board of Education

Here are key facts about the board:

  • Seven members elected on a partisan basis
  • Board districts are the same as congressional districts
  • Term limits: Two six-year terms
  • Current board is four Republicans, three Democrats
  • Members are unpaid
  • Board generally meets monthly
  • Constitutional duty: “General supervision of the public schools”
  • Specific duties: Hiring education commissioner, issuing regulations to implement state education laws; revoking teacher licenses; granting waivers to education laws; approving teacher prep programs; adjudicating district-charter disputes; certifying multi-district online programs; overseeing reports, task forces and various other groups; adoption of state content standards and tests; deciding conversion plans for failed schools and districts; distribution of grants, among others
  • Board website

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Some opponents of the mayor’s plan to scrap the specialized high school admissions exam say the city’s effort to integrate should actually start with gifted and talented programs. But while these parents and alumni groups have lobbied fiercely to keep the specialized high school exam in place, they are calling for a new approach to determining who is “gifted.” 

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.