READ Act Spat

Thousands of young English learners will take literacy tests in English under state board action

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

About 6,500 Colorado students face the prospect of taking a literacy test in a language they are still learning after a State Board of Education vote Wednesday.

The Republican-controlled board voted 4-3 along party lines to require kindergarten through third grade students in dual-language and bilingual programs who take mandatory reading tests in Spanish to also take one reading test in English a year.

The change to a rule governing the READ Act, a four-year old early literacy law, angered those who say it creates an unfair burden on English learners and won’t advance the cause of creating strong readers.

In approving the revision, the board majority went against the wishes of the state’s largest school district, prominent education groups, specialists who work with English learners and the primary sponsors of the READ Act. Passed with bipartisan support, the 2012 law uses tests to identify significant reading deficiencies and help students improve.

All four Republicans backed the rule change, while the three Democrats voted against it.

The board majority portrayed the change as an important check on a costly program meant to make sure kids are literate and positioned to succeed. Critics contend the change will effectively double-test kids, produce faulty data and undermine local control.

Evolution of literacy law

The original READ Act rules adopted in 2013 required testing of all students in kindergarten through third grade in English to identify significant reading deficiencies. Some districts, however, chose to also test in Spanish.

After some in the education community raised concerns about students being tested twice, the state Attorney General’s office in August 2014 issued an opinion affirming that the focus of the READ Act is on the skill of reading, “not the language in which it is employed.” The rules were then changed.

The rules were revisited again this school year because of a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that the rule change will not result in testing kids twice during the same period with the same assessment, once in English and once in Spanish.

The READ Act requires one test at the beginning of year, one test at the end of year and ongoing monitoring of student progress. As a result of the board action, a READ Act assessment will need to be given once a year in English, at any time, to track student progress towards grade-level reading competency, and that won’t need to be repeated in Spanish, Dorman said.

Susana Cordova, right. (Denver Post photo)
PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right. (Denver Post photo)

For the second consecutive month, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova appeared before the state board during public comment to sharply criticize the proposal, calling it a “dangerous overreach.”

Cordova has said the state risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems, and robs classroom instruction from students who already take more tests than their peers.

The rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy, DPS has said.

In an interview Wednesday, Cordova said that giving an English-language literacy test to a very young student still learning the language “has very limited value until they acquire enough English to give us meaningful data” on their progress.

As DPS students are learning to read in Spanish — while simultaneously learning English — the district is continuously tracking their progress in reading.

“It’s very important to state that our goal is for all kids — including Spanish speakers — to become proficient in speaking and reading English,” Cordova said. “Our advocacy is because when students have a strong foundation in their first language, they perform at higher levels in English.”

“Without exception”

Board chairman Steve Durham, a lobbyist and former lawmaker from Colorado Springs, told the board Wednesday before voting in favor of the rule change that in weighing the issue, he spoke with “a number of groups and individuals who were involved in the original passage of the READ Act,” including business groups and education reform groups.

He said that “without exception,” those groups and people “have almost been so blunt as to say that if you cannot and don’t test in English, why bother?” The whole purpose of the READ Act, he said, is to move children toward success in the economic marketplace, and “the economic language is English.”

Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)

“I think we are doing these children a disservice — a terrible disservice — because the chances of their dropping out increases exponentially with the inability to read and write English,” Durham said. “I view this as a common-sense issue. It is hard to characterize it as a significant burden on districts or children.”

In an interview after the meeting, Durham would not identify the groups and people he consulted, “to respect those confidences,” he said.

In the last month, the state board has been inundated with letters opposing the change from groups across the ideological spectrum. They included the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union), the Rural Schools Alliance and the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Also writing against the change were the primary sponsors of the bipartisan READ Act — Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

“The intention of the bill is not to establish bilingualism, bi-literacy, or to identify vocabulary gaps in English language learners,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is to establish the ability to read in the language in which the student is fluent.”

Typically, Republicans on the state board oppose testing. Last year, the board majority voted to direct the education commissioner to grant waivers to local school boards and districts wanting to opt out of a portion of state math and English language arts tests. The state attorney general, however, found the board lacked that authority.

Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, championed the requirement of literacy testing in English as a critical check on a $40 million-a-year state investment in seeing through the READ Act.

“A lot of people who work with kids and know a lot about literacy want this because they know in order to track whether kids are learning to read, they need that data point,” Scheffel said in an interview.

Protection against lawsuits?

Jen Walmer, Colorado director of Democrats for Education Reform, which supported passage of the READ Act four years ago, criticized the board’s action and took issue with the majority’s view of the literacy law’s purpose.

“No reasonable person would think that an English speaker unable to read a newspaper in Finland has suddenly become illiterate – language fluency and the ability to read are two obviously distinct skills,” she said in an email.

Walmer drew a connection to the board’s rejection last month of a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy — endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

“Perhaps their only focus is mastery of the English language and not the skills that will truly make our students best able to compete in a global economy,” she said.

An earlier version of the rule change applied to “English learners” in bilingual and dual-language programs. That was changed to “students,” which board member Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, suggested was meant to protect against lawsuits.

“We have had a tremendous amount of feedback against this,” she said. “… I haven’t heard any support for this.”

Under the READ Act tests, students found to be struggling with reading get individual plans to help them reach grade level. The law also provides funding to support intervention.

Read Chalkbeat’s recent story about how teachers view the READ Act four years in here.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.