READ Act Spat

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

PHOTO: Photo by Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class.

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.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.