Testing burden detailed

Study: Testing costs up to $78 million, covers most of school year

Colorado state government and school districts spend up to $78 million a year on testing, and some kind of standardized testing takes place during every week of the school year, according to a new study.

“Only accounting for direct costs, and not the additional opportunity costs incurred by redirected staff time, in total $70-$90 a student is spent on assessments in Colorado. This is between $61.1 to $78.4 million annually,” said the study by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver education research firm.

On the issue of testing time, the study said, “When considered in the context of a typical school year of 175 days … between 7 percent and 15 percent of time in the school year [is spent] preparing for or taking assessments.”

The study was done for the Standards and Assessments Task Force, the 15-member appointed group that is studying the state testing system and which will develop recommendations for the 2015 legislative session. The task force and the study were authorized by a 2014 law that was a legislative compromise in response to growing concerns about assessments. The group was briefed on the study last Monday.

The study’s conclusions were based primarily on information provided by surveys of district-level administrators, building administrators and teachers. Information about testing costs was based on the survey, state data and interviews with administrators in five districts.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • “It is clear that both teachers and students are spending a significant amount of time that could otherwise be devoted to instruction on these assessment-related activities,” despite variations among respondents about specific amounts of time spent on test prep and test taking.
  • “Respondents from all three levels indicated significant impacts and relatively few benefits for most assessments. … A majority of respondents at all levels reported disagreement that the benefits of assessments outweighed the impacts.” (The one exception was general agreement that the benefits of the ACT tests given to high school juniors outweigh its impacts.)
  • “Respondents … suggested changes to assessments, focusing on reducing the length and number of grades of students taking assessment or reducing to the federal minimum.”

The educator opinions collected by the study mirror those captured in an earlier Department of Education survey (see this story for details). But the APA study does combine a wide range of testing data in a single document and provides a fresh look at the alphabet soup of tests facing Colorado students every year – DIBELS, STAR, CMAS, ACCESS and many more.

Here’s a quick look at some of the study’s major findings.

Tests and the school year

From a week of school readiness assessments in August to three weeks of early literacy progress monitoring in May, testing goes on across the school year, the study found.

“In this … example, over 40 weeks of assessment windows are open for 10 unique assessments (with specific date ranges overlapping) over a typical 36 week school year. This does not include additional formative assessments, course exams, or AP/IB exams. As is apparent, assessment is a year long process with at least one assessment testing window being open nearly every week of the school year.”

Student time on tests

“While the number of assessments administered varies by grade level, students at every level spend over a week of school time preparing for assessments, with students at key grade levels spending over two weeks of school time preparing for assessments. Time spent taking assessments is similarly high, taking at least a week of school time for students at all levels and more than two weeks of school time for students in some grade levels.”

Teacher time on tests

In the context of a 175-day school year, teachers spend between 5 percent and 26 percent of their time “preparing for or administering assessments.” The variation is accounted for partly by different loads for teachers depending on the grades and subjects they teach.

Costs of testing

Chart

The study found direct per-student costs for testing varying between $5 and $50 for state tests and $15-$58 for district tests.

“These figures would be much higher if opportunity costs due to diverted staff time were included. The costs range dramatically between districts and represent different resource starting points and capacity capabilities. Though there is not a perfect correlation the smaller districts tended to have higher costs than the larger districts.”

Costs & benefits

“Ratings of assessment impacts were remarkably similar across district, school, and teacher respondents. Teacher respondents tended to rate the impact of assessments as slightly higher than district and school respondents, but differences were not large. Impact ratings did, however, vary significantly by assessment, with all respondents indicating high level of impact from the CMAS and TCAP/PARCC assessments across all impact areas. Conversely, respondents indicated lower impacts from the ACT.”

What should be done

“A minority of respondents at all levels suggested keeping assessments as they were, with the exception of the ACT. Across all assessments, respondents at all levels favored reducing the length of assessments. There were not major differences in suggested changes from respondents at the district, school, and teacher level.”

The study found about 60 percent of district administrators want to reduce language arts and math tests to the federal minimum of testing 3rd-8th graders and once in high school. Only about a third of building administrators supported that. There was majority support across all three groups for reducing the length of tests.

What happens next

The study is expected to be a key piece of evidence in the task force’s deliberations as it works to prepare its report – or possibly reports – during its final two scheduled meetings on Dec. 16 and Jan. 12.

The group also has gathered a wide variety of information, including comments at several public meetings around the state. (See this page for links to summaries of those meetings.)

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An outside advocacy group, the Denver Alliance for Public Education, also is seeking additional parent comment through an online survey, which it intends to present to the task force.

Some members of the task force have indicated support for trimming the testing system back to federal minimums. But there is a wide variety of views represented on the group, and members representing education reform groups are nervous about tinkering too much with the current system. (See the list of members at the bottom of this page.)

While the task force is still deliberating, members of the legislature already are at work on the issue.

“The legislators are drafting their own bills. We’re going to see bills that are across the spectrum,” said one lobbyist. “The legislature is going to have to pick and choose.”

How study was done

APA gathered information through document review, an online survey of district administrators, school administrators and teachers, follow-up interviews with five districts (Aurora, Center, Eagle, Kit Carson and Poudre) on costs and from CDE information. Here’s the breakdown of responses:

  • District-level administrators – Reponses represent 64 districts, or 36 percent
  • School-level administrators – Responses represent 12 percent of schools
  • Teachers – Responses represent 4 percent of statewide workforce

The study concluded that the responses were representative of statewide opinion.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.