the end of parcc?

Time to find new, shorter standardized tests, state board directs education department

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and chairman Steve Durham, listen to public comment at the State Board of Education's September meeting.

The State Board of Education on Thursday directed the education department to find new standardized tests that take students less time and whose results will be delivered faster.

The board wants math and English tests that will take students in grades three through eight no more than eight hours to complete — slightly less time than current exams take, according to the state.

Colorado’s contract with the PARCC assessment, which the state has used for its federally required English and math test since 2015, expires after the current school year. Absent new legislation, the board is required to renew its contract with PARCC or find a new vendor for the spring of 2018.

The state board broached dumping the politically contentious PARCC exam before the contract expires, but did not act.

The board’s motion to have the department find a new test for grades three through eight was approved 5-1. Vice chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, was the lone no vote. Democrat Jane Goff of Lakewood missed the morning vote.

Ninth-graders also take PARCC tests. That the board did not address ninth grade testing in its motion means it’s likely the state will look to better align that test with the existing 10th and 11th grade tests. This spring, high school sophomores will take the PSAT and juniors will take the SAT as their mandated tests.

Board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said the goal for the board was “to have a test that will serve the needs of Colorado students first.” He added: “The test we have now serves the needs of adults — it doesn’t serve the needs of students.”

Thursday’s action comes on the eve of a change in partisan control of the board. Democrats will have a majority on the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Durham said in an interview that the timing of the motion was not politically motivated and pointed out that Democrat Val Flores voted with the board’s four other Republicans.

Durham said “there are plenty of votes to sustain it” after Democrat Rebecca McClellan joins the board next year, replacing Republican Debora Scheffel.

Schroeder said she is in favor of shorter tests and results that are back sooner but opposed the motion because she wanted an additional parameter that would have ensured the state would be able to measure student academic growth.

Academic growth measures how much a student learns each year compared to their academic peers. That data point is the bedrock of the state’s accountability system that rates school and district quality.

“We need to be able to maintain growth,” she said. “You throw that out and we totally undo our accountability system.”

The state’s accountability system is only now turning back on after a one-year pause due to the state’s adoption of PARCC.

Unlike bubble tests of the past, the computer-based PARCC was heralded as interactive and capable of rewarding students for critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Supporters of the test promised lighting-fast results that would be comparable across state lines because for the first time multiple states took the same test.

But critics of the test, including several members on the state board, have said the tests take too long to administer and results are too slow to arrive to make meaningful changes at schools. Some also believe the tests aren’t grade-level appropriate, and that the federal incentives to join one of the two multi-state testing groups eroded local control. The number of states giving PARCC also has withered.

The charge to find a new test will likely be met with mixed reactions.

Many teachers, principals and superintendents — especially from smaller school districts — decried the burden they said it placed on schools. The tests, which are between eight and nine hours long, sometimes took weeks for schools to complete because of access to limited technology at some schools.

And the results have been slow to return to the state, which officials attributed to the extra work needed to get established. Under the state’s last testing system, the TCAP, schools had their results back typically by August. The first year of PARCC, school-level results were released in December. This year they were released in September.

Some found those hardships worth it because the tests, they believed, were academically challenging and a modern measure of student learning.

Others will be upset about yet another change to the state’s testing system. A new test in the spring of 2018 would be the state’s third different test in five years.

The nonprofit organization that produces the PARCC tests could still bid to administer Colorado’s tests. But it would need to also ensure the department will have decision-making authority over the test’s design and administration policies.

Schroeder said she believes PARCC could meet those requirements.

And Durham said he believed a testing company would step forward to meet Colorado’s tight deadline on tests results.

“It’s been my experience that when you have a multimillion dollar contract, people figure out how to bid it,” he said.

The state board is expected to consider what to do about the state’s ninth grade test at a later date.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the state board does not intend change the PSAT and SAT tests given at high school. 

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.