Testing Testing

Ready or not, new standards hit Colorado schools

Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

DURANGO, Colo. — On a sunny morning in early June, 30 educators crowded around tables in a room at Fort Lewis College for the first session in a three-day training on Colorado’s new academic standards. Though the school year had just ended, nearly 600 teachers converged on the small college in anticipation of the changes they would face when the new standards rolled out this fall.

In the back of the room, six math teachers discussed the day’s first task: to brainstorm what they knew about Common Core State Standards, nationwide grade-level expectations in math and English that Colorado adopted in 2010.

“Our district hasn’t touched it at all,” admitted one teacher from western Colorado. Her colleague nodded in agreement.

But the two were an anomaly at the table, which mostly included teachers from districts that piloted the standards two years ago. Twenty minutes later, each group taped a large poster to the room’s bank of windows. As the two facilitators read each poster out loud, it was clear that at every table, the teachers’ knowledge of the Common Core varied greatly.

While some groups had drawn diagrams and written several sentences, others had written just a few words.

“What does this mean?” asked one of the facilitators, pointing to the words “curriculum” and “purchases.”

“We were just coming up with buzzwords,” a teacher called out.

This year, educators across Colorado are bracing themselves for a rocky road as districts introduce a host of school reforms, including new standards for 10 content areas, new tests, and new teacher evaluation systems. The Common Core standards have sparked debate across the country over their quality and focus, and about the federal government’s role in classrooms. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which for most states has meant the Common Core.)

In Colorado, the transition has been relatively smooth, if slow, up until this year. Thirteen districts rolled out the new standards early, while at least one district rejected them and created its own comparable ones. The rest of the state’s 180 districts have transitioned more gradually to new standards or continued teaching previous versions of the state’s standards until this year, the deadline for all districts to switch.

“There’s heavily resourced districts that have been thinking about this for a while, and in some, other initiatives took some precedence,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instructional support for the Colorado Department of Education. “Now, it’s really starting to hit home.”

Even in the districts that have experimented with the new standards since 2011 and received extensive support from nonprofits like the Colorado Legacy Foundation, progress has varied. In Eagle County, outside of Vail, former superintendent Sandra Smyser said in a May interview that the district’s teachers have embraced the reforms. “It’s difficult for us to find advice on how to proceed because we’re so far ahead,” she said.

But in Durango, another pilot district in southwestern Colorado, the transition has been more gradual. District superintendent Dan Snowberger says teachers “dabbled” in the new standards for two years, but as recently as last year the district had “not shifted our thinking to the new standards to any complete degree.”

Despite the delays, the changes have been a long time coming. In 2009, the year before the nationwide Common Core standards were introduced, Colorado released its own new standards for math and English, as well as for less commonly taught subjects like dance and visual arts. An independent review of Colorado’s math and English standards found them to be significantly aligned with the later-released Common Core. But in 2010, the state revised its standards yet again to further integrate the Common Core, while retaining Colorado-specific topics like state history, and standards on financial literacy.

The view from the classroom

As the reforms roll out across Colorado, the biggest impact will be felt inside classrooms, where under Common Core students will learn fewer topics and spend more time on key concepts. Younger students will learn the basics, such as counting to 100 and writing sentences, in earlier grades. Math teachers will move more slowly through mathematical operations to build a better background for higher math, like algebra. Lessons will be steeped in context and modeling real-world scenarios.

In one of the more controversial changes, the new English standards promote nonfiction as a way to prepare students for the types of reading they’ll encounter most in college and at work. In elementary school, students are supposed to read a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, such as speeches and news articles, which will shift to 30 percent literature and 70 percent informational by high school. Not all of the informational reading will happen in English classrooms, but the shift has sparked outcry from some educators concerned that traditional literature like The Great Gatsby will be replaced by nonfiction texts like the Gettysburg Address.

Kimba Rael, a high school English teacher in the pilot district of Centennial, believes there’s room for President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 speech in English class. “It still 100 percent falls into our realm,” she said. “Can’t we teach it as a rhetorical argument?”

The new standards encourage interdisciplinary teaching. For example, the sample curriculum for seventh grade English language arts suggests that students research and write about different perspectives on climate change, a topic typically covered in science classrooms.

Common Core also stresses that students use evidence from texts to support their ideas, and that teachers spend less time on “pre-reading” activities such as asking students to make predictions before they read. Teachers are instead encouraged to devote more days to individual texts—one of the architects of Common Core, David Coleman, suggests that teachers spend three days on the 10-sentence Gettysburg speech, for instance—and ask more specific questions about them.

“I’m finding I’m gearing almost everything toward justification—the importance of particular lines and passages,” said Rael. Student “conversations have totally changed.”

But Rael also says it was hard at first to internalize some of the major changes, like reducing pre-reading activities and handing the discussion over to students. She says it took her about a year before she started to alter her lessons and classroom activities dramatically.

Now, her students participate in frequent seminars about their reading, during which they moderate their own discussions. They no longer take daily quizzes on various facts from the previous night’s homework. “It really became more of an ‘I gotcha,’ ” Rael admitted. Her new weekly quizzes feature two or three important lines or passages from texts that students must analyze. “There’s a lot of ‘Why? Show me.’ Or, ‘Can you prove that?’ ” she said.

At North High School in Denver, which has piloted the new standards since 2011, math teacher Zachary Rowe says the standards have resulted in a “huge shift” in how teachers at his school plan, teach and assess. Instead of listening to lectures and completing practice problems, students participate in group work, projects and debates about math concepts.

“We’ve moved away from naked problems—solving for X for the sake of solving for X—and getting into, ‘Why am I learning this?’ ” Rowe explained.

Last school year, Rowe began infusing his lessons with real-life scenarios—a change from just helping students memorize formulas and how to solve equations. He now teaches a lesson on how to graph the intersection of two lines with a word problem about population growth and food supply. “I was explaining in real-world terms what ‘intersection’ means,” Rowe said. “This is the point where this country reaches carrying capacity and everyone will die.”

As a result, Rowe says his students are more interested in his lessons and eager to talk about, and even debate, mathematical ideas with their peers. Math scores at North High School have risen slightly as well. In the 2011-12 school year, only 10 percent of the school’s ninth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the state math exam. In 2012-13, 14 percent did so.

The incremental growth at schools like North High School suggests that improvements may take longer than some would like. (Statewide, test scores have stagnated in the past two years.)

At the same time, new, more challenging math and English tests based on the new standards will debut in Colorado during the 2014-15 school year, and educators are bracing themselves for lower scores. In Kentucky and New York, where scores plummeted after students took new Common Core-aligned exams, opponents of the new standards have seized the opportunity to suggest that the standards are too rigorous.

Educators around the state are hopeful, however, that in the long term, the changes will ultimately lead to significant improvements in student achievement.

“We’re going to find out a lot about the readiness of schools and districts—and where they thought they were, and where they really are,” said Sevier. “This is going to be a heavy lift over the next few years.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Find out more about the Common Core.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.

District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.


Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to [email protected]

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.


School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.