Wrapping it up

Testing task force remains divided on some issues as finish line nears

Members of Standards and Assessments Task Force slowly worked through their recommendations as changes were tracked in a document project on screens in the meeting room.

In its final meeting Monday, the state’s testing task force firmed up recommendations for cutbacks in some high school testing and for streamlining of assessments and evaluations in the earliest grades.

The group couldn’t reach agreement on what should be done with social studies tests and with 9th grade language arts and math tests. Nor were its members of one mind about how the state should help districts with the costs of technology needed for new online tests.

The task force isn’t recommending that the testing schedule be changed for this spring or that the legislature mandate changes in local testing.

As the meeting ended, chair Dan Snowberger said, “What this [the group’s work] has represented to me is the real complexity of this issue.” Given that, he added, he hopes “the legislature doesn’t see the limited change we can suggest … as a loss.” Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango schools.

“I feel like we’ve done as much as we can,” said task force member Syna Morgan, a Jeffco administrator.

The Standards and Assessments Task Force didn’t leave Monday’s session with final report language in place. Subgroups of the 15-member body will edit sections of the draft completed Monday, then each member will have the opportunity to comment on the whole document. The panel will review changes during a Jan. 23 conference call, with a Jan. 26 deadline for finishing the report.

Given the group’s propensity for word-smithing, it’s likely there will several changes in language.

Members of the group are scheduled to present their report to lawmakers on Jan. 28.

The task force is recommending that language arts and math tests continue in grades 3-8 and in grade 10. Junior-year tests in those subjects would be made optional, and 12th grade tests in social studies and science would be eliminated. The task force also is recommending streamlining some of the assessments and evaluations used to determine school readiness and reading ability in K-3 students. For instance, students who demonstrate grade-level reading wouldn’t have to be retested during the same school year.

The group will propose there be a one-year timeout in state ratings of schools to avoid schools or districts being penalized if significant numbers of students opt out of this spring’s tests. The panel also agreed that if a ratings timeout is approved, the state needs to provide clear, factual to districts and parents on what that means.

Despite apparent agreement during a Friday meeting, the group split Monday in a rare show-of-hands vote on whether 9th grade language arts and math tests should be eliminated. The report will reflect that division.

The group’s division over whether to continue 4th and 7th grade social studies tests or make them optional also will go into the report.

Late Monday morning, the group also seemed ready to split on other high school testing changes.

After a break for lunch, Snowberger said, “It does feel like we’re starting to revisit, we’re starting to backpedal.” The panel decided to leave the recommendations as they were.

Members also spent considerable time Friday and Monday morning discussing more extensive changes to testing, which might be possible if and when federal requirements change. The possibilities include adaptive assessments (tests that get harder or easier depending on a student’s answers), flexibility for districts to use their own tests, state tests that combine several subjects, and streamlining annual testing so that students wouldn’t take tests in multiple subjects each year.

But the group made no recommendations – “There are unresolved tensions in the group,” noted Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign – and decided those issues are best left to some future study group.

In closing comments members complimented one another, but a couple were critical of the legislature for lack of diversity on the group. The panel, appointed by legislative leaders and the chair of the State Board of Education, had one Hispanic member and no African Americans. Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation called that “immoral if not unjust.”

Lewis and task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits also chided lawmakers for not providing any funding for the task force. (The only funding was for an outside study of testing impacts.)

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.