Are Children Learning

Amid angst over standardized tests, some parents say “no thanks”

When Ames Prather took his two sons to register for eighth grade at Denver’s Morey Middle School last summer, the boys were asked to fill out a form saying they would try their best on the TCAPs, state tests given every spring to third through 10th-graders.

Prather, a former teacher and now a technical writer, had his sons leave the forms blank and explained to school staff that they would not be taking the TCAPs.

Coalition for Better Education, which advocates opting out, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.
The Coalition for Better Education, which is based in Greeley, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.

His reasons were simple. Each year, around testing time, he noticed a change in his kids. They came home demoralized, with shoulders slumped and heads down.

“No joy in what they’re doing, no joy in education,” said Prather. And after the tests were over, it seemed that instruction mostly ceased for the remainder of the year.

This is the first time that Prather, who also has a 12th-grade daughter, will join hundreds of other Colorado parents in opting out of the tests. Advocates of opting out believe this could be a big year for the movement in Colorado, particularly in districts like Douglas County where there appears to be a groundswell of opposition to high-stakes testing.

And that opposition is not just among frustrated parents who believe testing narrows the curriculum, takes time away from instruction and is unfairly used to evaluate teachers and penalize schools.

Top administrators in Dougco, the state’s third-largest district, recently called the amount of testing “madness” and said students, at some level, are taking mandated tests almost every day of the year.

Superintendent Liz Fagen skewered the overuse of standardized tests on the district’s web site earlier this fall, saying they measure low-level skills and create a “focus on mediocrity.”

In Denver, outgoing school board member Andrea Merida attributed her decision not to run for reelection in part to her belief that “high-stakes standardized testing is destroying public education today.”

Scott Murphy, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools, said he sees the need for some mandated assessments because they can provide valuable data to teachers. Still, in the last couple years he’s become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of testing, particularly in early elementary grades and even preschool.

“It’s time to throw a flag up and say there may be a foul here,” he said.

Not just TCAPs

While refusing the TCAP is probably the most widely executed opt-out in Colorado, some parents have started to resist the use of commercial assessments at school long before their children reach third grade. These can include reading assessments like DIBELS, DRA2 or PALS, all approved for use under the READ Act, a new state law meant to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade. Other commonly administered tests include MAP, aimsweb and Acuity.

The increased number of tests being administered under the READ Act and the new Common Core Standards may be adding fuel to the fire of the opt-out movement, but testing proponents believe that such assessments can help schools do their job better. In addition to providing important information to parents about how their children are doing, they say test results help teachers tailor instruction and provide a common tool to help evaluate school effectiveness.

But not everyone agrees. Stefanie Fuhr, a former elementary school teacher, has a first-grader at Saddle Ranch Elementary in Douglas County. She opted her daughter out of the aimsweb assessment last year and aimsweb and MAP this year. She also opted her four-year-old daughter, who attends a private preschool, out of an early childhood assessment called Teaching Strategies GOLD.

Do your homework

 

Fuhr, who has a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education Curriculum, said she saw the harm of standardized tests during her 20 years as a teacher. Although she attempted to sell one principal on authentic assessment, a method that relies on an array of student work samples to judge performance and progress, her efforts were brushed off.

“I knew…we were becoming obsessed with the numbers,” she said. “I know from the inside…this is not what’s best for children.”

Opt-out activist Peggy Robertson, who works as an instructional coach in a Denver area district, said assessments like MAP, DIBELS and Acuity don’t support real learning, take up lots of time and turn teachers into data managers. Teachers have so many corporate tests to administer, they no longer have time to use their own assessments, she said. Stripped of the ability to make assessment decisions, they have a hard time trusting their own judgment.

Syna Morgan, system performance officer with Douglas County schools, agreed that mandated tests are gradually squeezing out teacher-made assessments embedded in instruction, which she believes are the most valuable kind.

Although Robertson, one of six founders of the organization United Opt Out National, said it can be hard to witness the day-to-day impact of excessive testing, she added, “I think it’s incredibly important for experienced teachers to stay in the system and fight this.”

Looking at trends

The Colorado Department of Education tracks the number of students who opt out of the TCAPs each year. In reading, the subject with the most “parent refusals,” the number appears to have gradually declined over the last several years, from about 1,636 in 2010 to 946 in 2013.

Advocates say the true numbers of parents seeking to opt their children out has been suppressed because school administrators often pressure or cajole them into changing their minds. Parent Sylvia Martinez, of Greeley, said when she met with the principal at her daughter’s elementary school several years ago to explain her rationale for opting out, the principal insinuated that since the girl had choiced in, she could lose her spot at the school if she didn’t take the test.

Martinez, a criminal investigator employed by the state, replied that she would then begin an active and noisy campaign to rally parents at the school to opt their children out as well.

“I said, ‘You don’t want to go there.’”

While parents don’t always relent to intimidation, they may choose a method of opting out that doesn’t include an official letter to the school, a meeting with the principal or some other clear indication of their intentions. Instead, some may instruct their children to leave the test booklet blank, X out the first page or fill in random answers. Others may keep their kids home from school on testing days.

In addition, it appears that there’s no clear standard for how districts should determine the number of parent refusals. Morgan said the state’s tally is probably not very accurate.

“It’s very squishy,” she said, “And there’s not a process.”

Until this year, Dougco did have a one-page form that parents could sign to opt their children out of TCAP testing. In fact, parent Karen McGraw, who used it last spring to opt her twin sons out of the 10th-grade TCAP tests, remembers being surprised there was a defined procedure in place.

But Morgan said the district had to get rid of the form after the CDE clarified that any kind of opt-out forms or waivers are prohibited.

Despite that direction, Megan McDermott, assistant director of communications at CDE, said in an e-mail that “The documentation requirements for parent refusal are locally determined.” Asked why Douglas County had to eliminate its form, she replied in an e-mail, “State statute is clear that all students must be assessed. CDE has made that requirement clear to districts.”

If at least 95 percent of a school’s students don’t participate in the TCAP in two or more subjects, the school could drop to a lower “plan assignment” under the state’s performance framework. While parent refusals are one factor that can lower participation rates, there are several others, including incomplete or misadministered tests.

McDermott said in an e-mail that some Colorado schools have faced this sanction for not meeting the 95 percent threshold, but didn’t know if it was solely due to parent refusals.

Where things go from here

While the preferred strategies of strident opt-out activists may diverge from those of district leaders who are frustrated with testing, both want state leaders to hear their message, particularly as a new set of state tests based on the Common Core are poised to enter the scene next year.

Morgan said Dougco administrators are currently having conversations with state legislators and state board of education members about their concerns. She also said she understands parents’ reaction to the crush of mandated tests and hopes they go beyond opting out and voice their opinions at the state level.

“I appreciate the momentum and the interest…It’s been a lonely journey to raise the concern,” she said.

Murphy said district assessment specialists are another key group that should be heard.

“CDE needs to listen to these people. These people have concerns about the validity and reliability of some of these tests.”

Murphy said parents, meanwhile, should file strong objections to the current testing environment. While he did not endorse opting out among parents, he said, “I respect that and I understand a lot of it.”

For some parents however, opting is the strongest and clearest message they can send to local and state leaders. And while current opt-outs represent a tiny fraction of young test-takers, activists hope the movement will grow enough to render high-stakes tests non-functional.

Fuhr, who believes Colorado is the state to watch this year, said, “We’re trying to starve them of the data and they’re starting to notice.”

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”