Test anxiety

Testing opt-out bill morphing into testing study

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The House Education Committee considered a testing bill in the ornate Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Capitol's largest hearing room.

Momentum is growing at the Capitol to launch a study of K-12 standardized testing, but lawmakers and interest groups first have to negotiate how that study would be completed.

The impetus for the study is House Bill 14-1202, which originally proposed allowing districts to opt out of certain aspects of state standardized tests. (Get details of the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

The bill was a non-starter in that form, even while educator and public testing anxiety has grown as new early literacy assessments have rolled out and as the 2015 launch of new statewide online tests nears.

Education reform advocates and state education officials fear that allowing districts to opt out would be disruptive for schools and the state’s systems for rating districts and schools and evaluating teachers. There’s also concern that allowing waivers could threaten federal NCLB requirements.

But some legislators believe testing anxieties can’t be ignored.

“This issue has been escalating and escalating and I think we’ve reached the tipping point,” Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday afternoon.

So sponsor Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, arrived at the committee’s hearing Monday afternoon with a “strike below” amendment in his pocket, language that replace the opt-out language with a proposed testing study. (“Strike below” is statehouse jargon for replacing all language below a bill’s title and boilerplate introduction with new provisions.)

The amendment actually didn’t get much discussion during the three-hour hearing. Hamner let the hearing run its normal course and took testimony from two dozen witnesses, most critical of the state’s current lineup of standardized tests.

“We feel like we’re getting to a point where we’re spending more time testing than instructing,” said Liz Fagen, superintendent of the Douglas County Schools. “One of our goals is to measure things that aren’t measured on standardized tests.” The idea for HB 14-1202 originated with the Dougco board and also is supported by the Mesa 51 district board in Grand Junction.

Doug Superintendent Liz Fagan
Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen

Asked what she thought of just doing a study, Fagen said, “Any movement is positive movement.”

“What we’re looking for is not an escape from accountability,” said Kevin Larsen, president of the Dougco board. “We want the freedom and flexibility to use assessments that matter for our kids.”

Several witnesses were members of a group named Speak for Cherry Creek, which includes parents and teachers from that district and elsewhere.

Paul Trollinger, chair of the math department at Cherry Creek High School, was highly critical of the coming PARCC multi-state tests, saying, “There has to be a better assessment model.” He said the current testing system has “taken the joy out of school for teachers as well as students.

After Elizabeth district Superintendent Doug Bissonette gave testimony critical of testing, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, asked if he believed there should be no statewide tests.

“We have the view that we should take fewer of them,” said Bissonette.

Murray and several other Republican committee members raised concerns that tinkering with the testing system would undercut education reforms passed in recent years.

About the only witness who wasn’t critical of tests was Luke Ragland of Colorado Succeeds, the business-oriented education reform group.

He said House Bill 14-1202 as introduced “would fundamentally cripple every aspect of our state’s accountability measures.” He said the group doesn’t have a position on doing a study.

While agreeing that “there is room for improvement” in the testing system, he added, “It’s easy to get swept up in anti-testing fervor. … What gets measured gets done.”

The committee took a break after testimony ended, and then Hamner announced that consideration of amendments and a vote would be delayed until the committee’s scheduled Wednesday morning meeting.

“I think it’s really important we get this bill right,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I’m confident we will be by Wednesday.”

Scott’s proposed study amendment would require the State Board of Education to appoint a “working group” (primarily representing various education interest groups) to study proposed assessment timelines, costs, impact of tests on classroom instructions, feasibility of letting districts opt out, extension of testing timelines and the feasibility of allow parents to opt students out of testing.

Hamner said questions about task force membership, data sources, cost of the study and other issues need to be negotiated before the committee can vote on the amended bill.

The Department of Education already has hired WestEd, an education consultancy, to review district implementation of new tests this year and next, but that study won’t cover all the issues outlined in Scott’s proposal.

Monday’s hearing was more low-key than last Thursday’s Senate Education Committee session on Senate Bill 14-136, which lasted for more than six hours and took testimony from more than 40 witnesses. The committee ended up killing the bill, which would have set a one-year timeout for implementation of state content standards and new tests. (Get more details in this story.)

Stay tuned

As a global robotics competition descends on Detroit, few local students are included — for now

PHOTO: Getty Images

More than 15,000 junior engineers from around the the world are descending on Detroit this week for an international robotics competition.

Local students, for the most part, aren’t among them. Just one city high school qualified to send a team, out of more than 400 high school teams in the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

That could change in coming years, if Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has the impact he’s hoping.

“Robotics coming to DPSCD high schools in the fall,” he wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. “New programming. Stay tuned!”

Vitti has promised a long list of new offerings to start this fall, when he begins his second full school year leading Detroit’s main school district. Dozens of schools have started robotics teams in the last year, and in February, the district announced a $112,000 grant from the state education department to pay for robotics materials and after-school coaches in more schools.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer this type of programming to every student districtwide,” Vitti said in a press release announcing the grant. “This commitment excites our parents and the business community which is yearning for future employees with STEM skills.”

For now, Cesar Chavez Academy High School — a charter school that the district does not operate — will alone represent Detroit high school students at the international competition, set to recur in the city annually until 2020.

The academy’s five-year-old team, the Az-Tech Eagles, has racked up sponsorships from local companies, including General Motors and Detroit Labs, according to the competition website. But it faces an uphill battle in this week’s contest.

While most teams that qualified for the championship competition did so by winning local contests, Cesar Chavez got in by winning a “District Engineering Inspiration Award” earlier this year.

That award, according to competition rules, “celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community.”

The district entered 53 teams from 39 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, in qualifying competitions, according to a spokesperson. The only team from a district-run school in this week’s competition is the Mighty Lego Dolphins from Thurgood Marshall Elementary — one of the schools to introduce robotics this year.

About 40,000 people including students and their parents are expected for the competition, which starts Wednesday at Cobo Hall. A host of science- and technology-themed events have been planned throughout downtown including pop-up video arcades, live performances, and games.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.