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. 

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.