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.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: