test swap

Goodbye ACT, hello SAT: a significant change for Colorado high schoolers

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

Colorado high school juniors will be required to take the SAT college-entrance exam instead of the ACT starting this spring, a significant change that grew out of a competitive bidding process required by hard-fought testing reform legislation.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that a selection committee chose The College Board, makers of the SAT, over the ACT testing company, which has been testing juniors in Colorado since 2001.

High school sophomores, meanwhile, will begin taking the PSAT. Under the compromise testing legislation, sophomores and juniors no longer will take PARCC English and math tests, which debuted last spring and proved especially unpopular with high school students.

“We realize this is a big shift for students and that this decision is coming later in the school year than any of us would like,” Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp said in a statement. “We are committed to exploring options for flexibility that make sense for this year’s juniors who need to use this spring’s exam for their college applications.”

Asp did not offer any specifics about what that flexibility might look like.

State officials said the selection committee chose the PSAT in part because it aligns with the high school Common Core English language arts and math standards, which Colorado adopted. The state said the committee also found “the College Board’s reporting system more useful to students, as it connects students to resources and activities designed to help identify next steps for extra support or possible acceleration.”

The SAT and PSAT will be given each spring for the next five years, with the exact dates to be determined, the state said.

The decision to go with the College Board tests will become official at the end of the procurement process, which includes a waiting period of seven business days. The change does not require State Board of Education approval.

The contract will be negotiated after the official award, state officials say. An education department spokeswoman said the competing bids for 10th and 11th grade tests will be subject to public review after the procurement process.

The state wanted one vendor for both tests. By going that route, results on the 10th grade tests can be used to help teachers prepare students for tests the next year.

The SAT tests differ from PARCC and, notably, will take less time. For example, sophomores spent more than 11 hours on PARCC tests last spring, while the PSAT clocks in at just under three hours. The PARCC tests have been shortened somewhat for this spring.

PARCC tests include only language arts and math. The PSAT and SAT tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies and are meant to measure college and workforce readiness.

Since 2001, every Colorado junior has been required to take the ACT. About 55,000 students took the test last spring in the state’s public schools. The SAT has a much a lower profile in Colorado. About 6,500 students who graduated last spring took the test.

Bruce Messinger, superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District, said he was surprised by the selection. A number of superintendents pressed for sticking with the ACT, which students have traditionally valued and provide districts a common measurement over time, he said.

“With all the change that’s gone on with the PARCC assessments, and new literacy assessments … the ACT  was really the only longitudinal data we have had to go and look at over time,” Messinger said.  “I guess it’s a fresh start on all fronts now.”

Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County school district, said he, too, was taken aback by the decision given the state’s longstanding history with the ACT, and that the SAT is favored by colleges on the East and West coasts.

While Glass said he doesn’t yet know the committee’s rationale, he has concerns about preparing students for the new test on short notice and communicating with parents, among other things.

Asked what kind of flexibility he’d like the state to give, Glass said he hopes the state allows districts to choose whether to give the ACT or SAT this school year.

“The quality (of the tests offered by the two vendors) is not a huge question,” Glass said. “So if they are equivalent tests, then why would you make this seismic shift that is going to have all these ripple effects? It seems the juice is not worth the squeeze. It’s going to be a lot of work to make this transition and the outcomes are not going to be that radically different.”

One factor that may have swayed Colorado: the SAT has a reputation for being more reason-based and focused on critical thinking, while the ACT has a reputation for being more of a fact-recall test, Glass noted.

State officials say the selection committee that recommended The College Board included educators and administrators from urban, rural and suburban districts, and included content matter experts, assessment experts, special population professionals, guidance counselors and higher education professionals.

Read Chalkbeat’s previous coverage of the competition between the two testing giants here.

Capitol editor Todd Engdahl contributed information to this report.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.