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.)

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.