testing testing

Opt-out families respond to Carranza’s statement that boycotting tests is an ‘extreme reaction’

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

With state tests just days away, New York City’s new chancellor waded into the state’s white hot opt-out debate — and some families were hoping for a different message.

Chancellor Richard Carranza said the choice to skip the test — which one in five New York state students did last year — was an “extreme reaction” during a lengthy interview on NY1.

Some parents involved in the state’s opt-out movement said that if pulling their children out of exams seemed rash, it is only because a dramatic protest was necessary to have their testing concerns heard. The parents said they hope to share these concerns with Carranza and that they intend to sit out the tests again this year.

“We tried many approaches to upset change in Albany,” said Tia Schellstede, who has a child at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. But, she said, “Albany only listens to extreme reactions.”

The testing boycott movement has had some impact in New York. The protests were one factor that pushed state policymakers to change the state’s standardized tests, such as reducing the number of testing days in math and English each from three to two, and de-emphasize the use of tests in teacher evaluations and in judging schools.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

It is unclear whether there will be less interest in the boycott this year. The numbers of families opting out, while still high, were down two percentage points last year. The debate is also different in New York City than in the rest of the state. Last year, only 3 percent of students in the city opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math.

During Carranza’s interview, in addition to explaining the benefits of testing, he also acknowledged the limitations. “I think we need to educate the entire child and the entire child being educated is more than the sum total of a test,” Carranza said.

New York City education department officials stressed the same points as Carranza, saying that while test scores are only a snapshot of student performance, they provide important feedback to educators.

“Students are more than a single test score,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness. “State tests are one valuable tool for schools and educators to know how they’re doing and how they can improve instruction.”

Still, inside the opt-out movement, parents say they will continue refusing the test until more of their demands are met. They are pushing for significantly shorter tests, an end to the use of test scores as a factor in school closings, and test questions that are more appropriate for each grade level, said Megan Devir, who has children at P.S. 321 and MS 839 in Brooklyn.

“We found a tool (opting out) that’s effective and so why would we put this tool down now?” Devir said.

The traditional testing battle lines are being drawn already with state testing starting next week. Council member Daniel Dromm, the former head of the council’s education committee, is holding a press conference ahead of the tests calling on the education department to inform parents about their ability to opt out of tests.

He expressed his disappointment at Carranza’s statements in a phone call with Chalkbeat on Thursday. “I think that the only thing that’s extreme is the way the state misused these tests,” Dromm said. “I can totally understand why parents opt out of these tests.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, an organization that backs taking the tests, has been traveling the state on a campaign to encourage test participation. Sigmund, who answered his phone on the way back from one such trip in Rochester, said he was encouraged by Carranza’s statements.

“We’re grateful that he is recognizing, as did Chancellor Fariña, the importance of taking state assessments,” Sigmund said. “They are an important part of figuring out what students need.”

Some parents said they still believe Carranza is not a supporter of high-stakes testing and wondered aloud if the chancellor’s comments were driven by a desire to align himself with the mayor, who they say has not embraced the opt-out movement.

“I’m not going to say Carranza’s disappointing,” said Kemala Karmen, who has been active in the testing refusal movement in New York City and has two children at the Institute for Collaborative Education. “I’m going to say the mayor is disappointing.”

Some of the opt-out parents were willing to cut the new chancellor a little slack. Ted Pauly, who has two sons at P.S. 321, said in an email response to Chalkbeat that he found Carranza likeable and that he appreciated that the new chancellor discussed the limitations of standardized testing. But he said that the testing refusal movement became necessary to push for changes when policymakers were not listening.

Others said the comment was likely to engender pushback.

“This is an infuriating statement that will be met with immense resistance and hostility,” said Michael Elliot, a parent of twins who attend MS 839 in Kensington emailed Chalkbeat a statement. “He just lit the fire in opt out.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: