Test anxiety

Testing opt-out bill morphing into testing study

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The House Education Committee considered a testing bill in the ornate Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Capitol's largest hearing room.

Momentum is growing at the Capitol to launch a study of K-12 standardized testing, but lawmakers and interest groups first have to negotiate how that study would be completed.

The impetus for the study is House Bill 14-1202, which originally proposed allowing districts to opt out of certain aspects of state standardized tests. (Get details of the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

The bill was a non-starter in that form, even while educator and public testing anxiety has grown as new early literacy assessments have rolled out and as the 2015 launch of new statewide online tests nears.

Education reform advocates and state education officials fear that allowing districts to opt out would be disruptive for schools and the state’s systems for rating districts and schools and evaluating teachers. There’s also concern that allowing waivers could threaten federal NCLB requirements.

But some legislators believe testing anxieties can’t be ignored.

“This issue has been escalating and escalating and I think we’ve reached the tipping point,” Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday afternoon.

So sponsor Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, arrived at the committee’s hearing Monday afternoon with a “strike below” amendment in his pocket, language that replace the opt-out language with a proposed testing study. (“Strike below” is statehouse jargon for replacing all language below a bill’s title and boilerplate introduction with new provisions.)

The amendment actually didn’t get much discussion during the three-hour hearing. Hamner let the hearing run its normal course and took testimony from two dozen witnesses, most critical of the state’s current lineup of standardized tests.

“We feel like we’re getting to a point where we’re spending more time testing than instructing,” said Liz Fagen, superintendent of the Douglas County Schools. “One of our goals is to measure things that aren’t measured on standardized tests.” The idea for HB 14-1202 originated with the Dougco board and also is supported by the Mesa 51 district board in Grand Junction.

Doug Superintendent Liz Fagan
Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen

Asked what she thought of just doing a study, Fagen said, “Any movement is positive movement.”

“What we’re looking for is not an escape from accountability,” said Kevin Larsen, president of the Dougco board. “We want the freedom and flexibility to use assessments that matter for our kids.”

Several witnesses were members of a group named Speak for Cherry Creek, which includes parents and teachers from that district and elsewhere.

Paul Trollinger, chair of the math department at Cherry Creek High School, was highly critical of the coming PARCC multi-state tests, saying, “There has to be a better assessment model.” He said the current testing system has “taken the joy out of school for teachers as well as students.

After Elizabeth district Superintendent Doug Bissonette gave testimony critical of testing, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, asked if he believed there should be no statewide tests.

“We have the view that we should take fewer of them,” said Bissonette.

Murray and several other Republican committee members raised concerns that tinkering with the testing system would undercut education reforms passed in recent years.

About the only witness who wasn’t critical of tests was Luke Ragland of Colorado Succeeds, the business-oriented education reform group.

He said House Bill 14-1202 as introduced “would fundamentally cripple every aspect of our state’s accountability measures.” He said the group doesn’t have a position on doing a study.

While agreeing that “there is room for improvement” in the testing system, he added, “It’s easy to get swept up in anti-testing fervor. … What gets measured gets done.”

The committee took a break after testimony ended, and then Hamner announced that consideration of amendments and a vote would be delayed until the committee’s scheduled Wednesday morning meeting.

“I think it’s really important we get this bill right,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I’m confident we will be by Wednesday.”

Scott’s proposed study amendment would require the State Board of Education to appoint a “working group” (primarily representing various education interest groups) to study proposed assessment timelines, costs, impact of tests on classroom instructions, feasibility of letting districts opt out, extension of testing timelines and the feasibility of allow parents to opt students out of testing.

Hamner said questions about task force membership, data sources, cost of the study and other issues need to be negotiated before the committee can vote on the amended bill.

The Department of Education already has hired WestEd, an education consultancy, to review district implementation of new tests this year and next, but that study won’t cover all the issues outlined in Scott’s proposal.

Monday’s hearing was more low-key than last Thursday’s Senate Education Committee session on Senate Bill 14-136, which lasted for more than six hours and took testimony from more than 40 witnesses. The committee ended up killing the bill, which would have set a one-year timeout for implementation of state content standards and new tests. (Get more details in this story.)

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.