A hard day

Testing task force struggles, stumbles as deadline looms

Testing task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits (right) filled several big sheets of paper Monday trying to keep up with the group's deliberations.

The state’s Standards and Assessments Task Force, which has been meeting since July, finally got down to voting on tentative recommendations Monday. The process was messy, and the results were mostly inconclusive.

Straw votes taken over nearly eight hours by the 15-member advisory group generally supported reducing the amount of state-required testing in high school, but the members couldn’t reach agreement on a long list of other issues, including reducing the overall amount of testing, what to do about the new social studies tests and about readiness and literacy evaluations for young students.

And those recommendations the group did agree to “are not set in stone,” said chair Dan Snowberger.

As the daylong session dragged to its end, he said, “We are going to need much more time to come to agreement on recommendations.” Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango School District.

The group had a hard time getting to those preliminary decisions, having to redo votes on several issues and consuming time as members tried to explain the nuances of why they voted the way they did.

The discussion was civil and polite but clearly indicated the philosophical divisions among task force members, particularly between representatives of education reform groups on one side and parent activists and district administrators on the other.

The divisions on the task force likely prefigure disagreements during the 2015 legislative session, where testing is expected to be a top education issue. Some lawmakers say they are waiting to see what the task force proposes. But the task force’s inability so far to speak with one voice could well diminish its influence on Capitol deliberations.

Lawmakers already are chomping at the bit on testing; at least half a dozen legislators reportedly have reserved bill titles on the issue.

The tentative recommendations

The testing task force's work product.
The testing task force’s work product.

The task force did reach preliminary agreement on some testing issues, including:

  • Elimination of all state-required testing in the senior year of high school
  • Replacing the high school science exam with a beefed-up “college entrance exam” (like the ACT, but not necessarily that test)
  • Continue giving state science tests in the fifth and eighth grades
  • Elimination of language arts and math tests in the 11th grade and limiting those tests to the 10th grade
  • A majority of the group leaned toward allowing districts and schools to continue giving language arts and math tests in the ninth and 11th grades as a local option

Some members of the group appeared to support – kind of by default and perhaps temporarily – continued language arts and math tests in third through eighth grades.

In short, the group for now is leaning toward reducing state testing to what’s known as “the federal minimum,” the testing sequence that’s currently required by the federal government.

Members differed on what those straw votes meant.

“From grades three through eight we’ve affirmed the status quo. … We spent today essentially affirming the status quo. In all our discussions we haven’t reduced anything,” said panel member John Creighton, who serves on the St. Vrain school board.

“We have made progress. … Let’s not kick ourselves too hard just yet,” responded Jay Cerney of Cherry Creek Academy charter school in Englewood.

A tortured process

The discussion went slowly for a number of reasons, including:

  • Individual member suggestions for broad policy statements, intended to gain agreement from the group, frequently were greeted with “Yes, but” responses from other members, leading to prolonged discussions.
  • Even after straw votes, members took time to qualify and explain their votes, and several votes had to be repeated.
  • Task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits had to repeatedly call for second votes after members dropped their hands too quickly for her to count them.
  • The group wandered from topic to topic, changing subjects when they couldn’t reach agreement.

Comments by Snowberger, Lefkowits and others through the day illustrate the slow pace of discussion.

  • “So where are we?” – Snowberger at about 11:30 a.m.
  • “Can we vote on this?” – Snowberger shortly after noon
  • “We’ve cut very little in the way of testing so far.” – Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, at about 2 p.m.
  • “So where are we? – Snowberger a short time later
  • “This isn’t much of a recommendation if we’re split in half.” – Lefkowits as 2:30 p.m. neared.
  • “Let’s try to finish one thing before we move to another.” – Lefkowits at about 2:45 p.m.
  • “We need to talk about how long we are going to stay tonight. … We’ve spent a lot of time on things that have not moved.” – Lefkowits as the original adjournment time of 3:30 p.m. approached.
  • “We are a long ways away.” – Snowberger shortly after 3 p.m.

The meeting broke up shortly after 5 p.m.

What’s next

A rump group of the task force was planning to meet Tuesday to see if it could come up with more specific proposals for the full group to discuss later.

Snowberger also is trying to organize small groups of members to discuss issues before the next full meeting on Jan. 9. “If we wait until the 9th to do this again we’re going to be very disappointed,” he said.

The Jan. 9 meeting wasn’t scheduled originally, but the group agreed to it Monday. The panel also is scheduled to meet Jan. 12.

Snowberger’s comments also indicated he’s backing away from the goal of consensus the task force had at the start. “We’re going to have to start putting stakes in the ground, and if 10 of us agree, then report that 10 of us agree.”

Interest groups make their pitches

The task force’s day started with presentations by three interest groups with vocal positions on testing. Task force members split up for simultaneous presentations by the three groups, then discussed the information as a full group.

A parent group known as the Denver Alliance for Public Education presented the results of an online survey it conducted that found strong respondent opposition to the current testing system. The group has complained that a survey done for the task force by the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates didn’t sample parent opinion.

Representatives of the Colorado Education Association presented a teacher survey that showed respondents split on the Common Core State Standards and skeptical of the value of current assessments.

Members of the Social Studies Policy Group have been following the task force closely and are lobbying to avoid changes in or reduction of the state’s new social studies tests.

Learn more about the groups’ positions in these documents:

You can see the final APA report here and read recent public comments submitted to the task force here.

The task force was created by the 2014 legislature as a political compromise because lawmakers weren’t ready tackle more substantive changes to the testing system. As is typical with such study commissions, the task force membership was designed to include representatives of various education interest groups.


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.