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.”

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, said Asmus. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.