Testing Madness

Boulder students rally against senior tests, other districts see fewer students take exam

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

BOULDER — Instead of taking the state’s science and social studies tests, seniors at Fairview High School here braved below-zero temperatures to rally against a testing system they believe is burdensome and unnecessary.

As part of the protest, they waived signs at passing cars that read “legislators listen to the educators,” ate doughnuts, and drank hot cocoa. They also collected canned goods for a local food bank, did jumping jacks to keep warm, and fired off a string of letters to lawmakers explaining why they opted-out of new tests that are supposed to measure how proficient they are in social studies and science.

“We never had a voice in the first place,” said senior Rachel Perely. “They kinda just threw the test at us without [asking us] what is the student input on having another test as seniors. So, we’re out here saying we need this voice and we’re trying to get that conversation rolling.”

While the student protest is without a doubt the loudest and most public assault on the state’s testing system so far, it is just the latest in a growing cacophony calling on state lawmakers and bureaucrats to scale back — if not eliminate — the state’s testing system.

Across the metro region, some of Colorado’s most distinguished school districts saw low numbers of seniors participating in the tests.

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As of this morning, only 3 percent of the entire senior class at Cherry Creek High School took the state’s assessments due to opt outs.

“We respect the decision that students have made for themselves,” said Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District. “And look forward to having discussion with policy makers about how to go forward.”

Preliminary numbers from Douglas County showed participation by their seniors ranged from 27 percent to 80 percent.

At Fairview High only nine students took the exam. That means fewer than 1 percent of seniors took the test there.

While the students who didn’t participate might not face consequences, those kind of numbers mean trouble, or at least extra paperwork, for school districts. Colorado law requires that schools maintain a 95 percent participation rate in each exam. If 95 percent of students don’t participate in two or more content areas the school’s accreditation rating is lowered. If a school’s accreditation drops too low, and stays there for five years, the school district that operates that school could face more sanctions.

Given the political landscape, the department of education has issued guidance to school districts that they may provide evidence that they administered the assessments and made a good-faith effort to have students participate in order to protect their accreditation. That means schools and districts will likely need to turn over letters of refusal from parents, log phone conversations, and offer makeup assessments.

While Colorado has long had a community vocally opposed to the test, they haven’t gotten very far. Prior to this fall’s exams, the number of families who refused to allow their students take the tests barely broke 1 percent.

During the 2014 legislative session, the debate about standardized exams intensified among parents, educators, lawmakers and officials at the Colorado Department of Education. At issue is how much standardized testing is too much and what, if any, changes should be made to the testing system.

As a result of the debate, a committee has been established to study the issue of testing and make recommendation to the General Assembly next year.

Colorado’s testing system goes beyond the federal requirements, which says schools are required to test third through eighth grades in language arts and math. Also, one grade level in elementary, middle, and high school must be assessed in science. Colorado also tests high schools through the 11th grade in language arts and math. And this year, the state added the social studies tests for some elementary, middle, and high school students.

This is the first year seniors have had to take standardized tests.

Meanwhile, state officials are watching and listening and ready to engage in what the future of standardized exams look like in Colorado.

“Colorado still has to have that conversation — what is that we want from our state system,” said Joyce Zurowski, executive director of assessment at CDE. “I think that conversation should be occurring.”

Zurkowski noted the state’s current system — including the senior test — was borne out of a similar conversation in 2010.

“This new assessment system has been built off those assumptions, those priorities, those values, and it may very well be across time those have shifted,” she said Wednesday. “We need to know how those have shifted, and we can try to adjust within the confines of the law.”

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.