Round 2

UPDATED: State Board delays action on testing waivers

Updated at noon to include information about a new motion to eliminate penalties to districts with low testing participation rates.

The State Board of Education voted 5-1 Wednesday to delay action on testing waiver requests it has received from 20 districts. The board also voted to end penalties for districts whose test participation rates fall below required levels because of parents opting out.

The practical effect of the first vote is that those districts will have no legal justification not to give tests as scheduled in March. The motion specified that the board will reconsider the waiver issue at either its next regular meeting in March, or a special meeting if members decide to call one.

Today’s delay keeps alive controversy and the confusion kicked off when the board voted 4-3 in January to allow districts to seek waivers from the first part of the state’s new language arts and math tests, due to be given next month.

That January motion, made by new Republican member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, directed education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers that applied for such exemptions. The motion passed despite cautions from Hammond and Department of Education staff that the two portions of the tests can’t be separated.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl also told the board in January it didn’t have the authority to grant waivers. Hammond said then he wouldn’t issue waivers until he’d received formal advice from the attorney general’s office. That advice came last week, when Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued her formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the department have the legal authority to grant testing waivers. Such an opinion has the force of law, unlike Dyl’s informal advice.

Second resolution adds more complications

The board also created a new element of uncertainty Wednesday by passing a separate motion that seeks to exempt districts from any penalty if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in testing this spring because of parents opting out. The vote was 4-2.

As with the board’s original waiver vote in January, the vote’s legal effect is unclear. “This motion probably would violate the terms” in the state’s accountability agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, said Dyl.

“That does cause us a problem with the feds,” said Hammond, an issue that could “force me to ask for another opinion from the attorney general’s office.”

The federal NCLB law requires that all students in specified grades undergo annual testing in language arts and math. The federal government requires 95 percent participation and requires states to impose penalties on districts that fail to meet that threshold in two or more tests.

Colorado’s current penalty is a reduction in accreditation ratings for districts that don’t comply.

Explaining what would happen in light of the board vote, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said, “You’d have to submit an amendment to the feds … negotiate that amendment and see if they would approve it.” A possible amendment would propose a different penalty than loss of accreditation status.

Board members Durham and Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver argued for the motion. “We can’t hold districts liable for what parents want,” said Flores, hinting at the possibility of increased numbers of parents opting students out of tests this spring.

Durham argued that eliminating the current penalty is needed “so that pressure on parents hopefully will be eliminated.” He alleged that some districts and administrators put inappropriate pressure on parents to have students take tests.

The board’s one-hour discussion of testing waivers and the participation penalty was marked by some confusion.

Durham originally included the two ideas in a single motion. But chair Marcia Neal objected to that, as well as to voting on a motion that wasn’t available to members in writing.

Neal, participating by phone from Grand Junction because of a medical issue, was in and out of the conversation and didn’t participate in the two votes.

The discussion was marked by some tension, particularly between Durham and members of the attorney general’s staff.

At one point, after not getting the answer he wanted, Durham said to Dyl, “I’ll try one more time. It’s a yes or no question.”

Durham also complained that Colorado has become “bogged down in a regimen of testing” and criticized the attorney general’s office for not laying out a strategy for dealing with federal requirements.

He also scoffed at concerns that Colorado would lose federal education funding if it violates various requirements.

“I’ve yet to see” the federal government pull funding in such cases, he said.

Board is one voice in larger testing debate

The board’s January action was part of a broader backlash against state standardized testing that has united groups ranging from the Colorado Education Association to suburban parent activists to legislators from both parties.

There’s been rising concern about the amount of testing, particularly after 11th grade language arts and math tests were added, along with science and social studies tests for high school seniors.

Many teachers and administrators complain the new state school readiness and early-literacy assessments consume too much classroom time, and that giving this spring’s tests online will cut instruction time as students are shuttled back and forth to school computer labs to take tests.

And conservative critics object to the fact that the new tests are based on the Common Core State Standards, which they see as an infringement on state and local control of education.

Six testing bills already have been introduced in the 2015 legislative session. They range from a fairly simple reduction in testing to wide-ranging measures that propose to reduce testing and withdraw from the Common Core and the PARCC testing group.

Lawmakers face the same problem as the state board – current federal requirements leave states with limited options to reduce testing beyond a certain level or to give districts assessment flexibility.

The full legislative testing debate isn’t expected to develop until next month, but it’s widely assumed at the Capitol that lawmakers will approve some reduction in the amount of testing.

This spring’s tests

Here’s the rundown on the testing schools and students face this spring.

The first window – Districts can start giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades 3-11 on March 2. The so-called “testing window” remains open until April 3. An individual district has four weeks within which to schedule tests to accommodate computer availability and other needs.

The first part – The initial section of the language arts and math tests emphasize essay questions and other “constructed response” items that take longer to score. That’s why they’re given earlier.

The second window – Districts may test between April 20 and May 22.

The second part – Called “end of year” assessments, these tests are intended to assess student knowledge of what they’ve learned through the year and are mostly multiple-choice items that can be scored quickly. The ultimate goal of the new tests is to have results available before the school year ends, but that won’t happen this year.

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to 4th and 7th graders, and 8th graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28.

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for 3rd grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring.

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9 ¾ hours for 3rd graders, 10 hours in grades 4-5, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school.

Who wanted a waiver

As of Wednesday, 20 districts had applied for waivers. Most are small, but the list includes two larger suburban systems: Douglas and Jefferson counties. Many smaller districts used a sample resolution that had been circulated by the Rural Alliance, a group that advocates for the interests of small districts. Most districts asked for exemption from the first set of tests, but a few asked for broader waivers. They enroll more than 174,000 students, nearly 20 percent of the 889,006 students statewide.

Buffalo, Byers, Dolores, Dougco, Eaton, Elizabeth, Haxtun, Hayden, Jeffco, Julesburg, Kit Carson, Lone Star, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Weld RE-7 (Platte Valley), Weld RE-9 (Ault), Weld RE-10J (Briggsdale), Weldon, Wiggins and Wiley.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.