Are Children Learning

Amid angst over standardized tests, some parents say “no thanks”

When Ames Prather took his two sons to register for eighth grade at Denver’s Morey Middle School last summer, the boys were asked to fill out a form saying they would try their best on the TCAPs, state tests given every spring to third through 10th-graders.

Prather, a former teacher and now a technical writer, had his sons leave the forms blank and explained to school staff that they would not be taking the TCAPs.

Coalition for Better Education, which advocates opting out, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.
The Coalition for Better Education, which is based in Greeley, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.

His reasons were simple. Each year, around testing time, he noticed a change in his kids. They came home demoralized, with shoulders slumped and heads down.

“No joy in what they’re doing, no joy in education,” said Prather. And after the tests were over, it seemed that instruction mostly ceased for the remainder of the year.

This is the first time that Prather, who also has a 12th-grade daughter, will join hundreds of other Colorado parents in opting out of the tests. Advocates of opting out believe this could be a big year for the movement in Colorado, particularly in districts like Douglas County where there appears to be a groundswell of opposition to high-stakes testing.

And that opposition is not just among frustrated parents who believe testing narrows the curriculum, takes time away from instruction and is unfairly used to evaluate teachers and penalize schools.

Top administrators in Dougco, the state’s third-largest district, recently called the amount of testing “madness” and said students, at some level, are taking mandated tests almost every day of the year.

Superintendent Liz Fagen skewered the overuse of standardized tests on the district’s web site earlier this fall, saying they measure low-level skills and create a “focus on mediocrity.”

In Denver, outgoing school board member Andrea Merida attributed her decision not to run for reelection in part to her belief that “high-stakes standardized testing is destroying public education today.”

Scott Murphy, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools, said he sees the need for some mandated assessments because they can provide valuable data to teachers. Still, in the last couple years he’s become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of testing, particularly in early elementary grades and even preschool.

“It’s time to throw a flag up and say there may be a foul here,” he said.

Not just TCAPs

While refusing the TCAP is probably the most widely executed opt-out in Colorado, some parents have started to resist the use of commercial assessments at school long before their children reach third grade. These can include reading assessments like DIBELS, DRA2 or PALS, all approved for use under the READ Act, a new state law meant to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade. Other commonly administered tests include MAP, aimsweb and Acuity.

The increased number of tests being administered under the READ Act and the new Common Core Standards may be adding fuel to the fire of the opt-out movement, but testing proponents believe that such assessments can help schools do their job better. In addition to providing important information to parents about how their children are doing, they say test results help teachers tailor instruction and provide a common tool to help evaluate school effectiveness.

But not everyone agrees. Stefanie Fuhr, a former elementary school teacher, has a first-grader at Saddle Ranch Elementary in Douglas County. She opted her daughter out of the aimsweb assessment last year and aimsweb and MAP this year. She also opted her four-year-old daughter, who attends a private preschool, out of an early childhood assessment called Teaching Strategies GOLD.

Do your homework

 

Fuhr, who has a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education Curriculum, said she saw the harm of standardized tests during her 20 years as a teacher. Although she attempted to sell one principal on authentic assessment, a method that relies on an array of student work samples to judge performance and progress, her efforts were brushed off.

“I knew…we were becoming obsessed with the numbers,” she said. “I know from the inside…this is not what’s best for children.”

Opt-out activist Peggy Robertson, who works as an instructional coach in a Denver area district, said assessments like MAP, DIBELS and Acuity don’t support real learning, take up lots of time and turn teachers into data managers. Teachers have so many corporate tests to administer, they no longer have time to use their own assessments, she said. Stripped of the ability to make assessment decisions, they have a hard time trusting their own judgment.

Syna Morgan, system performance officer with Douglas County schools, agreed that mandated tests are gradually squeezing out teacher-made assessments embedded in instruction, which she believes are the most valuable kind.

Although Robertson, one of six founders of the organization United Opt Out National, said it can be hard to witness the day-to-day impact of excessive testing, she added, “I think it’s incredibly important for experienced teachers to stay in the system and fight this.”

Looking at trends

The Colorado Department of Education tracks the number of students who opt out of the TCAPs each year. In reading, the subject with the most “parent refusals,” the number appears to have gradually declined over the last several years, from about 1,636 in 2010 to 946 in 2013.

Advocates say the true numbers of parents seeking to opt their children out has been suppressed because school administrators often pressure or cajole them into changing their minds. Parent Sylvia Martinez, of Greeley, said when she met with the principal at her daughter’s elementary school several years ago to explain her rationale for opting out, the principal insinuated that since the girl had choiced in, she could lose her spot at the school if she didn’t take the test.

Martinez, a criminal investigator employed by the state, replied that she would then begin an active and noisy campaign to rally parents at the school to opt their children out as well.

“I said, ‘You don’t want to go there.’”

While parents don’t always relent to intimidation, they may choose a method of opting out that doesn’t include an official letter to the school, a meeting with the principal or some other clear indication of their intentions. Instead, some may instruct their children to leave the test booklet blank, X out the first page or fill in random answers. Others may keep their kids home from school on testing days.

In addition, it appears that there’s no clear standard for how districts should determine the number of parent refusals. Morgan said the state’s tally is probably not very accurate.

“It’s very squishy,” she said, “And there’s not a process.”

Until this year, Dougco did have a one-page form that parents could sign to opt their children out of TCAP testing. In fact, parent Karen McGraw, who used it last spring to opt her twin sons out of the 10th-grade TCAP tests, remembers being surprised there was a defined procedure in place.

But Morgan said the district had to get rid of the form after the CDE clarified that any kind of opt-out forms or waivers are prohibited.

Despite that direction, Megan McDermott, assistant director of communications at CDE, said in an e-mail that “The documentation requirements for parent refusal are locally determined.” Asked why Douglas County had to eliminate its form, she replied in an e-mail, “State statute is clear that all students must be assessed. CDE has made that requirement clear to districts.”

If at least 95 percent of a school’s students don’t participate in the TCAP in two or more subjects, the school could drop to a lower “plan assignment” under the state’s performance framework. While parent refusals are one factor that can lower participation rates, there are several others, including incomplete or misadministered tests.

McDermott said in an e-mail that some Colorado schools have faced this sanction for not meeting the 95 percent threshold, but didn’t know if it was solely due to parent refusals.

Where things go from here

While the preferred strategies of strident opt-out activists may diverge from those of district leaders who are frustrated with testing, both want state leaders to hear their message, particularly as a new set of state tests based on the Common Core are poised to enter the scene next year.

Morgan said Dougco administrators are currently having conversations with state legislators and state board of education members about their concerns. She also said she understands parents’ reaction to the crush of mandated tests and hopes they go beyond opting out and voice their opinions at the state level.

“I appreciate the momentum and the interest…It’s been a lonely journey to raise the concern,” she said.

Murphy said district assessment specialists are another key group that should be heard.

“CDE needs to listen to these people. These people have concerns about the validity and reliability of some of these tests.”

Murphy said parents, meanwhile, should file strong objections to the current testing environment. While he did not endorse opting out among parents, he said, “I respect that and I understand a lot of it.”

For some parents however, opting is the strongest and clearest message they can send to local and state leaders. And while current opt-outs represent a tiny fraction of young test-takers, activists hope the movement will grow enough to render high-stakes tests non-functional.

Fuhr, who believes Colorado is the state to watch this year, said, “We’re trying to starve them of the data and they’re starting to notice.”

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.