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.

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”