SBE pulls a surprise

State Board votes 4-3 to give districts waiver option on testing

A divided State Board of Education has fired the first official shot in Colorado’s 2015 testing wars, but it remains to be seen if that action is a live round or a dud.

The board Thursday voted 4-3 to allow school districts to seek waivers from administering the first part of PARCC tests in language arts and math, scheduled to be given in March.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the board it doesn’t have the authority to do that, and Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said he wouldn’t grant such waivers unless told he could do so by the attorney general’s office.

“Should this motion pass it probably wouldn’t have legal effect,” Dyl told the board before the vote. “This is a part of the law you do not have the power to waive.”

Hammond told the board, “If you pass this motion I will not implement it until I get guidance from the attorney general’s office. … It could have widespread implications on schools.”

The motion was made by Steve Durham, a new Republican board member from Colorado Springs, and seconded by Deb Scheffel, a Republican member from Douglas County, Also voting for it were new Democratic member Valentina Flores from Denver and Republican Pam Mazanec from Douglas County.

“If the commissioner elects not to grant those [waivers] that’s up to him,” Durham said. “I believe a much fuller legal analysis is required, and I fully intend to meet with the attorney general.” Interviewed after the meeting, Durham said, “I hope someone makes a waiver request and moves it forward. … Should the commissioner decide he does not want to grant a waiver, then someone who applies for a waiver and is not granted one can litigate the question.”

Voting no were chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, and Democrats Angelika Schroeder of Boulder and Jane Goff of Arvada.

“If we pass this motion it will cause chaos in the state and in the districts,” Neal said. “This is a terrible motion. We need to defeat it and then we need to work to get this state out of PARCC.”

Neal also said, “I would get out of PARCC if I could. We don’t have that ability with the legislation that’s in place.”

The issue wasn’t on the board’s agenda and was brought up suddenly by Durham, a veteran lobbyist and former Republican legislator who recently was appointed to fill a board vacancy.

Durham said after the meeting that he tried to get the issue on the board’s agenda but wasn’t able to. Referring to his legislative skills, Durham said he tried to “shoehorn” the motion into an appropriate part of the meeting. The board was being briefed on school finance when Durham asked about the cost of testing and then brought up the motion.

The language arts and match PARCC tests are scheduled to be given in two parts, one in March and another at the end of the school year.

Durham argued that districts should be able to give only the end-of-year tests if they choose.

Department of Education staff told the board the two parts can’t be separated. “These are are not two tests. There are two components to the test,” said Department of Education testing chief Joyce Zurkowski, who hustled from her office to the boardroom after the discussion started.

Durham’s comment was “Somehow we walked ourselves … into a two-part test that we’re really not obligated to have.”

Testing is expected to be hot issue during the new legislative session, but many lawmakers are awaiting the report of the advisory Standards and Assessments Task Force, which is due by Jan. 31. (The divided group meets again Friday.)

Durham sounded dismissive of the group, saying, “I suspect the results are going to be tainted by the conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest of those serving.”

Durham said he’d been working on the motion for a few days and that it had been suggested to him by someone whom he wouldn’t identify.

Near the end of the meeting, Durham raised the issue of the Common Core State Standards, indicating he’d like Colorado to get out of them and saying, “One of the things I’d like to see from the commissioner is a series of recommendations that would end in this result.”

“To get out of Common Core does take legislative action,” Hammond said.

Other board members balked a bit at Durham’s suggestion, and everyone seemed to agree to take the issue up as a formal agenda item in February.

Last spring the board (with a slightly different membership) voted 4-3 for a resolution asking the legislature to withdraw Colorado from the PARCC testing group (see this story). Lawmakers took no action.

In November the board issued a unanimous letter suggesting that the amount of state testing be reduced (see story).

Reaction measured on board action

The board’s decision, first reported by Chalkbeat Colorado, spread quickly among lobbyists and lawmakers at the Capitol.

Senate Education Committee Chair Owen Hill said, “The people elect the State board and give it authority over the commissioner. I’m confident the commissioner will do everything in his legal power to do the wishes of his boss, the State Board.”

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, said the board vote “obviously will shape this discussion” but that he remains committed to holding off on consideration of testing bills until after the task force makes its report. “We’re going to honor that process.”

Hill also said he’s invited Hammond to meet with Senate Education to discuss the issue of testing waivers.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, would only say, “I really hope the State Board understands its authority in making or not making policy.” Kerr is the senior Democrat on Senate Education Committee.

Jane Urschel, top lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards, sat in on part of the board’s discussion. “This is not really a surprise, but will this action truncate the legislative process, where we will have public deliberation on this important and emotional issue?” she wondered.

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.