awaiting clarity

Expecting big changes to state testing this year? Don’t hold your breath

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

Some Colorado districts and lawmakers have long been itching to throw off the straitjacket of state standardized tests so they could experiment with alternative ways of gauging student learning.

A new federal law offers hope for such flexibility, but it appears unlikely Colorado legislators will take any major action on the issue this year.

“There’s not going to be significant legislation,” said Lakewood Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, chair of the House Education Committee.

The only proposal she foresees is the possibility lawmakers could direct the Colorado Department of Education study the issue.

Why? Lawmakers want to wait until the U.S. Department of Education fleshes out the details of the new law with regulations.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress late last year, leaves the familiar annual testing calendar in place. But the bill also offers grants that states can use to try to improve their testing systems. That could open the door for a states, for example, to use of multiple tests. The law also creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests.

What that will mean in practice remains to be seen. Experts who are creating new rules for the federal department that will accompany the law are just starting their work.

Asked whether ESSA allows multiple state tests, Assistant Commissioner Gretchen Morgan of CDE told the House Education Committee at a recent hearing that there is still much to learn about the new law.

“ESSA does still speak to a single state assessment. … We don’t know yet what to expect,” she said. “It’s going to be a while.”

The committee backed a bill to study options for future state test changes but defeated a bill aimed at making Colorado attractive for an upcoming federal testing pilot program.

The committee passed House Bill 16-1234, which would require the state education department to study possible alternative tests in language arts, math, science social studies and report back to the legislature.

“This is a study bill. It’s a do-nothing bill this year” but could lay some groundwork for the future, said sponsor Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs. As one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, Klingenschmitt has little clout in the Democratic-controlled House. If his bill doesn’t survive, Pettersen indicated the idea might be resurrected in another measure.

The other bill, House Bill 16-1131, called for the state education department to recommend local testing options to the State Board of Education and would have allowed the department to reduce testing under certain circumstances if Colorado participates in the ESSA pilot.

Sponsor Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill was intended to ensure a testing pilot program included in last year’s state testing reform law would be tailored to make it more attractive to districts.

Pettersen said she didn’t think the state needed a bill to do those things.

“I believe that’s correct,” Morgan replied.

The bill was killed on a 7-4 vote, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition

Testing alternatives might come into play in another bill. Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on a yet-to-be-introduced measure intended to give school districts some relief from state mandates, including how frequently some districts have to file improvement plans.

Wilson agreed his bill also could provide a vehicle for discussion of testing alternatives. But he doesn’t think that will happen this year. “I think that may wait for flexibility 2.0 legislation next year.”

Last year’s testing reform law included a provision creating a complicated, multi-year pilot program under which districts could experiment with different tests, but no district has taken up the offer.

“We haven’t received any notifications from districts or charter schools that they’re interested in doing that,” Morgan told the committee.

A group of 10 rural districts is working on what’s called the Student-Centered Accountability Project, hoping to design an alternative to the current state system for rating districts and schools. The group currently is seeking bids for management of the project and trying to determine costs.

Only two states, Arizona and Florida, are actively pursuing alternative tests, according to a recent Education Week article. A bill that would allow districts to choose from a menu of tests is headed to the governor’s desk in Arizona.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.