READ ACT ROUND ROBIN

Colorado State Board of Education adopts new early literacy rules for native Spanish speakers, reversing earlier decision

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Elizabeth Sanchez, a math teacher at Denver's Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, checks the homework of a student in this 2014 file photo.

The State Board of Education ended a two-year debate over how to measure the reading skills of Colorado’s youngest students learning English as a second language after it unanimously adopted Wednesday new policies to comply with a legislative compromise passed last spring.

The rule change applies to English learners whose native language is Spanish. Under the board-approved policy, school districts will be able to choose whether to test students who have limited English proficiency in either English or Spanish.

The board, at the request of associations representing school executives and boards of education, backed off additional reporting requirements that were outside the scope of the legislation.

But the new guidelines do provide parents the right to request students be tested in English, and requires school districts that reject such a request to share their reasoning with parents.

“I think we need to give them that right,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “Districts shouldn’t fight them on this.”

The board’s action Wednesday coupled with this spring’s legislation reverses a controversial decision the state board made in 2016 that required schools to test the literacy skills of students enrolled in kindergarten through third grade in English — even if they knew no English at all.

The state board’s debate over the state’s early literacy law, the READ Act, was often framed more by the personal opinion of board members rather than education research and context provided by the state education department.

Some conservative board members repeatedly raised the specter that school districts, especially those with large populations of English learners, were attempting to sidestep their duty of teaching English — or at least trying to hide poor results.

School officials and other experts argued that testing a student’s literacy skills in a language they were more fluent in would provide better information to help teachers do their job.

Colorado lawmakers passed the READ Act in 2012. The goal of the legislation, often considered one of the state’s landmark education reform efforts, was to increase the number of students reading at grade level by the third grade.

The law, as originally passed, was silent on whether schools were required to test students in English.

Research has long held that students reading at grade level in third grade are more likely to have academic success through the rest of their educational careers. Conversely, students who aren’t reading at grade-level by the third grade are more apt to drop out.

The READ Act requires schools to monitor students for “significant” reading deficiencies. Students who are flagged are supposed to be put on a monitoring plan and are receive additional services from the school.

Putting the legislation into place in classrooms has provided mixed results. Some educators worry the policy adds an unnecessary testing burden on students and adds mountains of paperwork for teachers. Others say the READ Act has brought a renewed focus on a critical learning milestone.

The state has wrestled for years with how to best gauge the literacy skills of students learning English as a second language. The debate peaked in 2016 when the then-Republican controlled state board, over objections from education leaders in Denver and other school districts, adopted new rules requiring those young language learners to be tested at least once in English.

Susana Cordova, who was then Denver Public Schools’ acting superintendent, warned the change would lead to more testing and possibly over-identifying English learners as having reading deficiencies.

A bipartisan coalition of Colorado lawmakers went to work this year to reverse the state board’s decision. A compromise was ultimately reached that allowed school districts to choose which language to test students enrolled in dual language programs who were not yet proficient in English.

On Wednesday, board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, reiterated his concern that the changes would open the door for school districts to side-step an obligation to English language learners.

He said there were only two reasons to oppose testing students in English: “One is you don’t value teaching kids English, or two you don’t want to admit failure in getting kids to speak English … otherwise everyone should be proud to report their READ Act results.”

The board’s new rules could apply to other English learners if the state adopts literacy tests in other languages.

Stay tuned

As a global robotics competition descends on Detroit, few local students are included — for now

PHOTO: Getty Images

More than 15,000 junior engineers from around the the world are descending on Detroit this week for an international robotics competition.

Local students, for the most part, aren’t among them. Just one city high school qualified to send a team, out of more than 400 high school teams in the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

That could change in coming years, if Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has the impact he’s hoping.

“Robotics coming to DPSCD high schools in the fall,” he wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. “New programming. Stay tuned!”

Vitti has promised a long list of new offerings to start this fall, when he begins his second full school year leading Detroit’s main school district. Dozens of schools have started robotics teams in the last year, and in February, the district announced a $112,000 grant from the state education department to pay for robotics materials and after-school coaches in more schools.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer this type of programming to every student districtwide,” Vitti said in a press release announcing the grant. “This commitment excites our parents and the business community which is yearning for future employees with STEM skills.”

For now, Cesar Chavez Academy High School — a charter school that the district does not operate — will alone represent Detroit high school students at the international competition, set to recur in the city annually until 2020.

The academy’s five-year-old team, the Az-Tech Eagles, has racked up sponsorships from local companies, including General Motors and Detroit Labs, according to the competition website. But it faces an uphill battle in this week’s contest.

While most teams that qualified for the championship competition did so by winning local contests, Cesar Chavez got in by winning a “District Engineering Inspiration Award” earlier this year.

That award, according to competition rules, “celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community.”

The district entered 53 teams from 39 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, in qualifying competitions, according to a spokesperson. The only team from a district-run school in this week’s competition is the Mighty Lego Dolphins from Thurgood Marshall Elementary — one of the schools to introduce robotics this year.

About 40,000 people including students and their parents are expected for the competition, which starts Wednesday at Cobo Hall. A host of science- and technology-themed events have been planned throughout downtown including pop-up video arcades, live performances, and games.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.