Common Core in spotlight

Senate Education kills standards and testing timeout

The wide range of hopes and fears about academic standards and coming online tests were more than fully aired Thursday for the Senate Education Committee, which concluded its 6 1/2-hour meeting by voting 4-3 to kill Senate Bill 14-136.

The measure, drafted by concerned parents and sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, would have delayed by a year implementation of new online state tests, created a task force to review the Colorado Academic Standards (including the Common Core) and required the Department of Education to study the costs of implementing the standards and tests.

The hearing capped two days of events and lobbying at the Capitol that focused attention on issues that previously haven’t been as high profile in Colorado as in other states.

Defeat of the bill was expected, given that key Democratic legislators, state education officials and both mainline and reform advocacy groups generally have been supportive of Colorado’s program of new standards, tests and other education changes, which was launched in 2008 and still is being implemented.

The discussion, as chair Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, noted, was “very respectful.” That tone continued as members made their final comments before voting. All four Democrats voted to kill the bill.

“I heard a lot of things today that give me lots of things to think about,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, perhaps the legislature’s leading proponent of the standard education reform agenda. “I don’t think the answer is to pause on this.”

Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, a bit choked up, said she sympathized with concerns about over-testing but that “it’s a difficult thing” to put Colorado’s system on hold. “There will be discussions that will continue.”

The hearing, with long lists of witnesses organized by both sides (more than 40 total), spotlighted the variety of fears and criticisms that have been sparked by the Common Core standards and by the prospect of new online tests aligned to those standards. Some witnesses were emotional, and one broke into tears while speaking to the committee.

Bill supporters raise many fears

Marble previewed the arguments of bill supporters, saying, “This bill was not written by me, this bill was written by moms very concerned about the Common Core standards and the implementation of testing.”

Later in the hearing, Marble said that what she hears from parents is that “It’s the camel’s nose under the tent. … This is the first brick in the foundation to help the fed government take over our schools.”

Witnesses testifying for the bill raised worries about everything from too much testing, perceived loss of local control, one-size-fits-all instruction, lack of parent voice in the process, obscene textbooks and made multiple references to the supposedly sinister designs of Bill Gates.

“I’m a mother and a nurse and I’m really angry,” said Anita Stapleton of Pueblo in opening her remarks. Stapleton has been very active in the anti-Common Core movement.

“I truly speak for hundreds of educators and parents who are desperately trying to have their voices heard,’’ said Lis Richards, principal at Monument Charter Academy. “We will not align to those standards. … We’re not going to dip our colors for the Common Core Standards.”

Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins parent active in drafting the bill, said testing “is taking away so much classroom time.”

And Sunny Flynn, a Jefferson County parent, complained about “big business, big government and big data” and added, “It is time for Colorado to decide if the move to centralized education is good for our state.”

Stephanie Pico, who said she works as a computer technician in the Cherry Creek schools, said she feels schools and students in that district aren’t ready for online tests, saying, “It would be wise to press the pause button.”

Bill opponents try to stress the positive

Platte Canyon physical education teacher Elizabeth Miner said the Colorado Academic tandards “reflect real world skills and knowledge [and] were created by the best and brightest teachers.” Miner is 2014 Colorado Teacher of Year.

MiDian Holmes, with Stand for Children Colorado, said, “These standards are the next step in bringing quality education” to all students, including minorities.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said, “Our teachers and students are drowning in testing” but said the teachers union still opposes SB 14-136. “We believe these standards are an issue of equity.” Dallman also complained about “the lack of resources in our eductin system right now.”

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said passing the bill “would halt the progress being made on our robust education system in Colorado. … Every year many kids in our system are falling behind. Students keep waiting for adults to become more comfortable with well-vetted change.”

The debate is expected to continue in a new forum on Monday, when the House Education Committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 14-1202, which would allow individual districts to opt out of state tests.

Roll call: Voting for the bill were Republican Sens. Marble, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker. Voting against were Democrats Johnston, Kerr, Todd and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. The votes reversed on the motion to postpone the bill indefinitely.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: