Testing Madness

Denver releases new opt-out guidance for schools after parent conflict

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Hill Campus in Denver will rock the TCAPs, except those who have been opted-out.

Denver Public Schools officials on Wednesday evening issued new guidelines for how schools should treat families who have opted-out of state assessments after a conflict between a parent and the principal at a Hilltop neighborhood middle school.

The recommendations, which allow students to attend regular classes while skipping early morning tests, comes almost halfway through the time period the state allots for schools to proctor the tests. The district is also issuing the memo amid a growing cacophony of assessment protests: Since the fall, teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing in schools.

But as more parents have asked that their students be exempted from the state exams, schools have sometimes struggled with how to reconcile the demands of parents and of the law, which requires students to be tested.

“It is important for families to understand the value of assessments and the district’s responsibility to follow the law,” wrote Susana Cordova, the district’s chief academic officer, in an email to Denver principals. “Each school is responsible for assessing students in attendance during the testing window.”

However, she continued, “Students refusing to participate in testing should still be allowed access to all other non-assessment activities.”

Parents who want to opt-out their students of the state exams argue that there is legal precedent that allows them to do so, despite a Colorado law that requires students to be tested in third through tenth grades.

So far, the debate over testing in Colorado has seemed to be concentrated in suburbs like Douglas County. But while still relatively small — the total opt-outs from the 2013 round of tests amount to about 1 percent of students — the emergence of spats in Denver may indicate that momentum among parents to opt out is growing.

Meanwhile, parents who wish to have their students abstain from the test are encountering pushback from districts, said Angela Engel, a former Colorado teacher turn author and parent activist. 

Susan Johnson, the Denver parent whose conflict with her child’s school prompted the new guidance from DPS, is one parent who recently joined the opt-out movement.

“I never liked the tests,” she said during an interview Wednesday. But this year is the first she decided to opt her children out of the exams.

Johnson, following the guidance of organizations like United Opt-Out, sent a letter earlier this month explaining her decision to opt-out her children to both her daughter’s middle school and her son’s high school.

She said she didn’t receive any grief from staff at Denver’s South High School.

“They encouraged me to send my opt-out letter to the school board,” Johnson said.

But on Tuesday, she removed her sixth-grade daughter, Sarah, from the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences after her suspicions were aroused that the school was not respecting her request to exempt her daughter from TCAP testing.

Johnson, who is also the school’s PTA treasurer, said she dropped Sarah off at 10:55 a.m. Tuesday, after testing was completed for the day.

In a video shot on a cell phone shortly after Johnson believed her daughter was in class, Johnson found  Sarah, in an office with school staff.

“Excuse me, I explicitly said my daughter was not to be spoken to about this test or coerced in any way,” she told a school employee.

Johnson then asked her daughter if they denied her access to her class. Sarah nodded.

“Get your backpack, let’s go,” Johnson told Sarah.

As Johnson and her daughter left the room, an unidentified DPS employee stood and recited testing protocol.

“Legally, she can’t be in a testing room and interacting with other kids who have already tested same sessions that day,” he said.

Denver school officials declined to discuss the incident at Hill in detail.

But, the school’s principal was following a literal interpretation of guidance provided to him from Colorado Department of Education that said all students who are present during a testing period are required to take test from district and state officials, a district spokeswoman said.

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And the district acknowledged the incident highlighted the need to help school leaders understand what to do if parent demands conflict with state guidance.

“We have apologized to the family for what happened at Hill yesterday,” said Kristy Armstrong, DPS’s spokeswoman. “Our assessment staff has received further clarification on how to accommodate students whose families choose to opt their students out of the portion of the school day devoted to state assessments. Students whose families choose to opt out of state assessments are welcome to participate fully in classroom activities during non-testing time.”

Denver’s new guidance mirrors established policy in neighboring Aurora Public Schools.

“When parents decide they will not allow their students to take TCAP, we ask for them to share their decision in writing, and then we keep the letters for our records,” said Georgia Duran, an APS spokeswoman. “Often parents choose to keep their students home during testing time, but we encourage parents to allow students to attend school. If a student does attend school, we have the student work with another class, and we provide individual work for the child.”

Opting students out of tests is not new. Since 1997, state law has required public school students in specific grades to take the standardized tests in math and English language arts.

However, as states have begun to introduce new exams tied to Common Core State Standards, parents have increasingly begun to organize across the nation to protest.

Engel, the author and activist, likened the opt-out movement to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights and Women’s liberation movements.

“Parents are sick and tired of the commercialization of our child’s education,” Engel said, explaining just one of the many arguments of parents who want to opt-out their students. “They are not for profit. The policies around high-stakes testing is making a lot of money for the test publishers like Pearson. Kids don’t have lobbyists. It falls to the parents to protect their interest. Too many commercial interests including consultants, data managers and curriculum publishers are benefiting.”

The conflict over the role of testing has pitted parents like Johnson against many state and district officials, who point out that testing is necessary to drive schools’ progress and undergird a complex system of school and teacher accountability that the state has built over the past several years.

Colorado schools are rolling out the state’s new standards, which incorporate the national Common Core math and English language standards. Beginning in April, some Colorado students will be tested on science and social studies standards. And a year from now Colorado students will be assessed using the new PARCC tests, which will assess students on the Common Core math and English language standards in nearly a dozen states. 

“Next year will be worse,” Johnson said, referring to the PARCC tests.

In light of the debate, Colorado’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue. And on Tuesday, the State Board of Education Chairman Paul Lundeen, who is also running for a seat in the state House, introduced a resolution that if passed would call on the legislators to abandon the state’s participation in the PARCC tests.

How Colorado could move forward with its accountability reform efforts if the state abandoned the high-stakes testing could prove difficult. But parents like Johnson might be OK if the system was dumped.

Johnson believe the accountability measures are misguided and is obstructing quality learning. That’s just one of many reasons why she doesn’t want her children taking the test.

“Teachers have been forced to change the way they teach,” she said. “Who can blame them? Their livelihood is on the line. They insist they’re not teaching to the test. But you can see they are. If I were a teacher, I would.”

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests: