Test performance

For a few weeks, Denver at center of PARCC testing world

The basement conference rooms of a Denver hotel are ground zero for setting the performance levels of students in Colorado and other states on last spring’s PARCC language arts and math tests.

Dozen of educators gathered Monday to begin setting the five performance levels – sometimes called “cut scores” – for the two sets of tests given to Colorado students in grades 9-11.

“It’s exhausting,” said Marti Shirley, a high school math teacher in Mattoon, Ill. “But it’s invigorating in a way, too.”

Shirley and about 120 other teachers, administrators and college professors are meeting in Denver this week to set cut scores for high school language arts and math tests. Similar panels will gather in Denver during the last two weeks of August to set proficiency levels for elementary and middle school test results.

The educators do their work in panels of about 20 members each. Six groups are working in Denver this week.

Officials from PARCC and a group of panelists met with reporters Wednesday to explain the process and reflect on what it means.

Because the PARCC tests are designed to be harder than Colorado’s old TCAP exams and other states’ past tests, smaller percentages of students are expected to be ranked in the top proficiency levels. Panelists were asked repeatedly about that gap between how students actually perform and how they should perform.

They all came down on the side of setting high expectations.

“We’ve got to raise the standard if we want to do better. … The only way to do that is to keep raising the bar,” said Robin Helms, a math teacher at Wray High School on Colorado’s eastern plains. She’s serving on one of the panels.

“Students only give you what you ask them, so you have to push,” said Katherine Horodowich, an English teacher at Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences, N.M. “We have to set the bar higher.”

Shirley said there’s wide agreement among educators “that these standards are attainable. Are they attainable tomorrow? That’s not the case. … Trust us. Give us the benefit of the doubt that we know what we’re doing.”

The overall goal of the Common Core State Standards, on which the tests are based, and of the tests themselves is that high school students should be ready for college or to go to work and that younger students are prepared for the work in the next grade.

How performance setting works

The panels will be setting the scores needed for a student to be ranked in one of five performance levels.

“They are making recommendations about how good is good enough,” explained Mary Ann Snider, a Rhode Island education official who works with PARCC.

Each PARCC member state selected 20 educators to serve on the panels. The high school panels started this week with two days of intensive training and began setting levels on Wednesday.

The five levels
  • Level 5: Distinguished understanding of subject matter
  • Level 4: Strong understanding
  • Level 3: Adequate understanding
  • Level 2: Partial understanding
  • Level 1: Minimal understanding

A key tool for the panels are the detailed “performance level descriptors” that lay out the knowledge and skills that students need to demonstrate to be rated in each performance level. (See an example of a descriptor as the bottom of this article.)

Here’s how the panels work:

  • Members work through test question one by one.
  • Panelists individually decide what scores on a particular question should be assigned to each performance level.
  • Members then share their individual scores with each other, learn what the group’s median score was for each level and also learn the median score of all students in a particular grade on a test.
  • Based on that shared knowledge, individual panelists reconsider their individual decisions, and the whole process is repeated until the group reaches consensus.

The panelists who met with reporters had positive things to say about the process.

“None of us are shy. We have no problem telling people we disagree,” said Loretta Holloway, an English professor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

“It’s not like we all sit down and make one judgment. It’s a conversation,” said Helms. “We’re spending a whole week looking at this.”

What went on before

Before the panelists could begin work, the tests taken by 5 million children had to be scored.

The Pearson testing company used about 14,000 scorers at home or at more than a dozen centers around the country to score the tests, which took about a month per content area. Scoring was done by grade level, not by state. And individual scorers worked on individual questions, not entire tests.

Scorers assigned points for each answer, which could be as many as six points, depending on the question. To be hired, scorers had to have a four-year degree in a relevant field and pass a scoring “test” after being trained. Samples of scorers’ work were double checked by testing experts.

What’s next

After the high school panels finish their work, the education commissioners from the eight PARCC governing board states (including Colorado) will meet to review the recommended cut scores. The commissioners can make changes. Higher education executives from the states also will review the cut scores on high school tests.

The education commissioners will meet again Sept. 9 to review the middle and elementary school cut points.

Public release of scores, including parent reports similar to the one pictured above, will come in late fall or early winter, PARCC officials said Wednesday. In future years results should be available in June or July.

Colorado uses test scores, plus growth data based on multiple years of scores, as part of the system that rates schools and districts. A law passed by the 2015 legislature created a one-year timeout in the accreditation system, so PARCC scores from last spring won’t be used to rate schools and districts next year.

The state’s non-PARCC tests for science and social studies use four performance levels – distinguished, strong, moderate and limited. Students with distinguished or strong command are considered to be ready for college work, or for the next grade.

The State Board of Education will have to fine-tune the existing accreditation system in order to account for PARCC’s five performance levels.

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 the most current year, 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.

Correction: Feb. 20, 2018: This story has been updated to more accurately describe how the district will rate schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

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: