Testing burden detailed

Study: Testing costs up to $78 million, covers most of school year

Colorado state government and school districts spend up to $78 million a year on testing, and some kind of standardized testing takes place during every week of the school year, according to a new study.

“Only accounting for direct costs, and not the additional opportunity costs incurred by redirected staff time, in total $70-$90 a student is spent on assessments in Colorado. This is between $61.1 to $78.4 million annually,” said the study by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver education research firm.

On the issue of testing time, the study said, “When considered in the context of a typical school year of 175 days … between 7 percent and 15 percent of time in the school year [is spent] preparing for or taking assessments.”

The study was done for the Standards and Assessments Task Force, the 15-member appointed group that is studying the state testing system and which will develop recommendations for the 2015 legislative session. The task force and the study were authorized by a 2014 law that was a legislative compromise in response to growing concerns about assessments. The group was briefed on the study last Monday.

The study’s conclusions were based primarily on information provided by surveys of district-level administrators, building administrators and teachers. Information about testing costs was based on the survey, state data and interviews with administrators in five districts.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • “It is clear that both teachers and students are spending a significant amount of time that could otherwise be devoted to instruction on these assessment-related activities,” despite variations among respondents about specific amounts of time spent on test prep and test taking.
  • “Respondents from all three levels indicated significant impacts and relatively few benefits for most assessments. … A majority of respondents at all levels reported disagreement that the benefits of assessments outweighed the impacts.” (The one exception was general agreement that the benefits of the ACT tests given to high school juniors outweigh its impacts.)
  • “Respondents … suggested changes to assessments, focusing on reducing the length and number of grades of students taking assessment or reducing to the federal minimum.”

The educator opinions collected by the study mirror those captured in an earlier Department of Education survey (see this story for details). But the APA study does combine a wide range of testing data in a single document and provides a fresh look at the alphabet soup of tests facing Colorado students every year – DIBELS, STAR, CMAS, ACCESS and many more.

Here’s a quick look at some of the study’s major findings.

Tests and the school year

From a week of school readiness assessments in August to three weeks of early literacy progress monitoring in May, testing goes on across the school year, the study found.

“In this … example, over 40 weeks of assessment windows are open for 10 unique assessments (with specific date ranges overlapping) over a typical 36 week school year. This does not include additional formative assessments, course exams, or AP/IB exams. As is apparent, assessment is a year long process with at least one assessment testing window being open nearly every week of the school year.”

Student time on tests

“While the number of assessments administered varies by grade level, students at every level spend over a week of school time preparing for assessments, with students at key grade levels spending over two weeks of school time preparing for assessments. Time spent taking assessments is similarly high, taking at least a week of school time for students at all levels and more than two weeks of school time for students in some grade levels.”

Teacher time on tests

In the context of a 175-day school year, teachers spend between 5 percent and 26 percent of their time “preparing for or administering assessments.” The variation is accounted for partly by different loads for teachers depending on the grades and subjects they teach.

Costs of testing

Chart

The study found direct per-student costs for testing varying between $5 and $50 for state tests and $15-$58 for district tests.

“These figures would be much higher if opportunity costs due to diverted staff time were included. The costs range dramatically between districts and represent different resource starting points and capacity capabilities. Though there is not a perfect correlation the smaller districts tended to have higher costs than the larger districts.”

Costs & benefits

“Ratings of assessment impacts were remarkably similar across district, school, and teacher respondents. Teacher respondents tended to rate the impact of assessments as slightly higher than district and school respondents, but differences were not large. Impact ratings did, however, vary significantly by assessment, with all respondents indicating high level of impact from the CMAS and TCAP/PARCC assessments across all impact areas. Conversely, respondents indicated lower impacts from the ACT.”

What should be done

“A minority of respondents at all levels suggested keeping assessments as they were, with the exception of the ACT. Across all assessments, respondents at all levels favored reducing the length of assessments. There were not major differences in suggested changes from respondents at the district, school, and teacher level.”

The study found about 60 percent of district administrators want to reduce language arts and math tests to the federal minimum of testing 3rd-8th graders and once in high school. Only about a third of building administrators supported that. There was majority support across all three groups for reducing the length of tests.

What happens next

The study is expected to be a key piece of evidence in the task force’s deliberations as it works to prepare its report – or possibly reports – during its final two scheduled meetings on Dec. 16 and Jan. 12.

The group also has gathered a wide variety of information, including comments at several public meetings around the state. (See this page for links to summaries of those meetings.)

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An outside advocacy group, the Denver Alliance for Public Education, also is seeking additional parent comment through an online survey, which it intends to present to the task force.

Some members of the task force have indicated support for trimming the testing system back to federal minimums. But there is a wide variety of views represented on the group, and members representing education reform groups are nervous about tinkering too much with the current system. (See the list of members at the bottom of this page.)

While the task force is still deliberating, members of the legislature already are at work on the issue.

“The legislators are drafting their own bills. We’re going to see bills that are across the spectrum,” said one lobbyist. “The legislature is going to have to pick and choose.”

How study was done

APA gathered information through document review, an online survey of district administrators, school administrators and teachers, follow-up interviews with five districts (Aurora, Center, Eagle, Kit Carson and Poudre) on costs and from CDE information. Here’s the breakdown of responses:

  • District-level administrators – Reponses represent 64 districts, or 36 percent
  • School-level administrators – Responses represent 12 percent of schools
  • Teachers – Responses represent 4 percent of statewide workforce

The study concluded that the responses were representative of statewide opinion.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:

 

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.