whole child

New kindergarten assessments voluntary this year, mandatory next year

Teacher at a professional development session.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Lori Sabian asked the two dozen teachers and principals seated before her what they had heard about Teaching Strategies GOLD, the early childhood assessment she would be training them on for the rest of the day.

Sensing hesitation, she added a reassurance: “This is a room of truth,” she said.

Then one teacher piped up with the advice she’d been given: “Run, run run!”

It was by no means the only opinion about the online tool, but it summed up the trepidation that many kindergarten teachers feel as they prepare to pilot the “school readiness assessment” this year in advance of mandatory statewide implementation next year.

This broad implementation — one component of a six-year-old school reform law — comes against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about the state’s “testing burden” as well as questions about the security of student data. It also unfolds on the heels of new K-3 literacy assessments required under the READ Act.

Even the educators who are excited about using Teaching Strategies GOLD to tailor instruction or provide better feedback to parents admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the time-consuming task ahead of them. One teacher at the recent training in Evans asked Sabian for something of a pep talk as she wondered how she would assess the nearly 40 students in her two half-day kindergarten classes.

“Can you just say something to keep me positive?” she asked.

Others in the room were more circumspect.

“We’ve always done assessment. We’ve always done data collection. And this just feels like a nice model that pulls everything together,” said Julie Claeys, assistant elementary principal and K-12 assessment coordinator for Union Colony Preparatory School in Greeley.

“Yes, it’s going to be a lot of work to learn but I’m really grateful that we have this first year where messing up isn’t fatal.”

Where did it come from?

Across the country, states are increasingly adopting school readiness assessments, also called Kindergarten Entry Assessments. In Colorado, the mandate was born out of a major piece of school reform legislation passed in 2008—the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, or CAP4K.

The color bar system used in TS GOLD indicates what age most students are expected to achieve various developmental tasks. Purple represents what kids should know in kindergarten.
The color bar system used in TS GOLD indicates what age most students are expected to achieve various developmental tasks. Purple represents what kids should know in kindergarten.

The law required that all kindergarteners have an “individualized readiness plan” informed by a valid, reliable and research-based school readiness assessment. While the law included no funding for the assessments, the state is using $1.2 million from its $44 million federal Race to the Top grant to cover implementation costs.

For state leaders, school readiness assessments like TS GOLD represent a more effective way to track and address the many domains of child development. These include social-emotional, cognitive, language and physical development, as well as academics such as literacy and math.

“If we have a great assessment system that addresses the whole child that way, I think it’s going to inform practice and start to give kids a better foundation,” said Sharon Triolo-Moloney, director of the Office of Early Learning and School Readiness at the Colorado Department of Education.

Claeys described the information provided by TS GOLD, saying, “It’s like having an [Individual Education Plan] for every kid,” referring to plans for students with special needs.

Unlike other kinds of standardized tests, most kids won’t even know they’re “taking” a school readiness assessment like TS GOLD. That’s because it involves a year-long process of observation and documentation of what students are doing in the normal order of their school day. This might mean counting to 100, retelling the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” resolving a squabble with peers, or using a quiet voice when visiting the library.

For the most part, the burden of completing the assessment rests on teachers, who will be responsible for taking regular notes, photos and videos, uploading them to the TS GOLD platform and categorizing them appropriately. Three times a year—around Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—there are “progress checkpoints” where teachers determine how students compare to other children of the same age.

Because it’s a system that punishes procrastinators, Sabian and other speakers at the training frequently warned teachers not to let data—say, photos of student work or sticky notes describing a teacher-student interaction—pile up without being entered online.

“Don’t let it stockpile,” said Emily Kielmayer, an early adopter from the Garfield School District, recounting her own trials with entering lots of data at the last minute.

At the same time, she talked enthusiastically about how TS GOLD helped her work with struggling students who’d simply scored zeroes on other assessments. With TS GOLD’s birth-kindergarten continuum, it was easier to find a jumping off point for instruction.

Gradual roll-out

Both last year and this year are voluntary phase-in years for TS GOLD, with an emphasis on experimentation and flexibility. For example, teachers can focus on just three or four of the nine developmental areas covered by TS GOLD, or assess only a handful of students instead of the whole class.

School readiness assessments under consideration
  • Riverside Early Assessments of Learning (REAL)
  • Work Sampling System (WSS)
  • Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP)
  • Kindergarten Early Learning Scale (K-ELS)

State officials estimate that nearly 1,200 teachers in 103 of the state’s 178 school districts will use TS GOLD this year. Starting next year, all Colorado kindergartners must be assessed, though leaders in some districts are hoping to be circumvent that requirement. Last winter, the conservative-leaning Jeffco Public Schools board of education voted to seek a waiver from TS GOLD’s use in  kindergarten.

While the state didn’t grant that waiver, district administrators are waiting to see what other school readiness assessments might be approved in advance of next year’s mandatory implementation. Four other assessments are currently under consideration, but a final decision isn’t expected from the State Board of Education until sometime this fall.

“I know there’s a big push for something that’s easier,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.

Still, she doubted that quicker, easier assessments would look at the whole child in the comprehensive way that TS GOLD or similar assessments do.

As is typical for online assessment systems, TS GOLD charges a per-student fee—it’s around $9 in Colorado. This year, like last year, the state will cover those costs completely in implementing districts. Next year, the state will cover at least 60 percent of the costs; the following year, that number will drop to around 30 percent.

Many veteran users in the state

While TS GOLD may be new to most kindergarten teachers, a fair chunk of Colorado’s preschool workforce is already familiar with the assessment. That’s because it’s been used for two years, and sometimes longer, in classrooms funded by the Colorado Preschool Program or CPP. (Another approved tool—the Child Observation Record or COR—is used in about 9 percent of CPP classrooms.)

Ilona Witty, director of early childhood in the Salida School District, said her staff has used TS GOLD for five years to assess the district’s preschool students and the last three years for its toddlers. It was stressful at first, but the early childhood team gradually learned shortcuts that made the process more efficient, she said. Getting iPads helped too.

In Denver Public Schools, where around 300 kindergarten teachers will pilot TS GOLD with at least five students each this year, administrators believe preschool teachers will be a good resource for the kindergarten adopters. District officials also say they’ve focused on the purpose of the assessment at trainings this summer.

“We talked about the why…We didn’t just talk about here’s another test and here’s how you give it,” said Caldwell.

“It’s a tool that helps…teachers really understand development and how it happens,” she said.

While Witty knows some observers worry that TS GOLD has a monopoly in the Colorado market, she’s believes the assessment is a good one that provides valuable feedback about the district’s youngest students.

“It drives our planning, it drives our ordering. It drives our professional development,” she said. “Of course they’re making a ton of money…If the product wasn’t good, I’d probably be more up in arms”

Administrators in Salida like the assessment system so much they aren’t stopping with kindergarten. In the coming years, first, and second grade classrooms will begin using a new version of TS GOLD that’s designed for children through third grade. The existing version and the one coming out for older children align with Common Core State Standards.

Sharing the data

Among the benefits of TS GOLD that most excited teachers at the Evans training was its potential to give parents more information about their children’s progress and better engage them as educational partners. Kielmeyer noted that she’d replaced report cards and parent-teacher conference forms with reports generated by TS GOLD.

“I had the best parent-teacher conferences I’ve had in the last 10 years,” she said. “I had boxes of tissues because I had parents crying tears of joy. They were just amazed at what I had to share.”

While parents have the option of asking that their child not be photographed or videotaped as part of TS GOLD, Kielmeyer and others say parents often become more receptive as they learn how those types of data are used to document progress. In fact, teachers can even invite parents to contribute to the assessment using documentation they’ve collected.

In addition to replacing report cards, Kielmeyer  said that TS GOLD allowed the district to replace some of its former assessments because GOLD provided the same information. In Denver Public Schools, Caldwell said a committee is in the process of deciding whether such overlaps warrant the elimination of some assessments.

One unanswered question about TS GOLD is how the data will be used at the state level. Currently, aggregate preschool data from TS GOLD and the other approved assessment is collected through the state’s Results Matter system. A summary is published in the annual Colorado Preschool Program legislative report.

At least initially, Triolo-Moloney said there won’t be a comparable report for the state’s kindergarten cohort.

“Everybody’s chomping at the bit for that,” she said. “But we’re trying so hard to not do that because we really want teachers to be free to practice this thing.”

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

Future of Schools

What time does school start? Some IPS parents concerned about coming schedule changes

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Dozens of parents filled the Indianapolis Public Schools board room Tuesday afternoon for a last-minute meeting about changing school start times, a sign of how disruptive many believe the changes could be.

Next year, the district is rolling out a new all-choice high school model, where students choose schools by focus area rather than neighborhood. In order to bus students from around the district to those schools without swelling costs, the administration is shifting start and end times for elementary, middle, and high school campuses.

Ultimately, the district says the new schedule will make it more likely that buses will arrive on time.

“With the all choice high school model, there has to be some modification,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said ahead of the meeting.

The administration’s recommendation, which was developed after feedback from parents, aims to limit the number of schools with significant changes in start and end times. For about 80 percent of schools, bell times will not change by more than 10 minutes, according to the administration. Under the latest proposal, most middle and high schools will run from 7:20 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. Most elementary schools will run from 9:20 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. The board will vote Thursday on new school start and end times.

The process for developing the plan inspired significant criticism from parents at the transportation meeting.

Dustin Jones, who has two children at the Butler Lab School, said he was particularly concerned that the district was still deciding on the new schedule in April after many parents already made school choices for next year.

“The appearance is the all choice model was ideologically kind of the direction to go, and then that the transportation to support that decision is lagging behind,” Jones said. “That shows a lack of ability and foresight.”

For months, the district has been holding meetings and asking parents for input on the schedule for next year. The administration, however, has struggled to develop a plan that would balance myriad challenges, such as containing costs, limiting disruptions for families, and handling a shortage of bus drivers that is posing significant challenges.

“There’s been an ongoing discussion of the transportation dilemma and challenge,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan at the board meeting after the discussion. “I think this reflects a very good resolution to most of the concerns. It does not address every concern of every family or every commissioner.”

Initially, leaders were also considering flipping school start times so high schoolers could start at a later time because research shows adolescents benefit from sleeping later. But in the face of practical concerns, such as high school student work schedules, the board abandoned that goal.

That was a disappointment for Molly McPheron, a pediatrician and parent in the district.

“The evidence is really clear that when high schools start later, children have improved health outcomes as well as improved graduation rates, better grades,” McPheron said. “We are going through a lot to make sure high schoolers have choice, have all these options. And then there’s kind of this simple thing that we could do that could potentially substantially improve their lives.”