cart before the horse

Colorado’s second largest school district may seek PARCC waiver — if legal

The Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education tonight may ask its superintendent to seek a waiver from the state allowing the district not to administer portions of Colorado’s new standardized testing system.

But whether Jeffco, the state’s second largest school district, can even ask for such a waiver remains open to question.

The board’s debate on a resolution about seeking a waiver will come a little more than a week after the State Board of Education, in a split vote, told the state’s education commissioner to accept waiver applications from school districts.

Commissioner Robert Hammond told the state board earlier this month that he doubted the legality of such waivers and has asked the state’s attorney general’s office for an opinion on the matter.

While the attorney general’s office has not issued an official opinion, a top staffer for the attorney general told the State Senate Education Committee today that such waivers could not be granted.

“The State Board of Education does not have the authority to grant a waiver,” said David Blake, chief deputy attorney general. “The General Assembly has limited the board’s authority to grant a waiver” by laws passed previously. “The black letter of the law is clear.”

The Colorado Department of Education previously rejected two testing waivers on the same legal grounds — that the department didn’t have the legal authority to grant them. Those districts were Montrose and Colorado Springs District 11.

The resolution the Jeffco board will debate tonight acknowledges the legal uncertainty. If the forthcoming decision from the attorney general’s office prohibits districts from applying for waivers, Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee will need to come up with a plan for administering the online-based exams known as PARCC.

Hammond told Chalkbeat he expects about a dozen districts to apply for waivers.

Tonight’s Jeffco debate and vote will be the board’s first attempt to tackle directly the highly political issues of testing. While conservative board member Julie Williams has pushed the issue before, the board hasn’t yet taken any sort of action on testing. That’s because board chairman Ken Witt has previously stopped debate on the topic, citing legal requirements to test. The state board’s vote last week may change that.

The waivers, if found to be legal, would allow school districts to skip the first part of PARCC test scheduled to be administered between March and April. Those school districts with a waiver would still be required to give the end-of-year portion of the PARCC exam in May.

States including Colorado that make up the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the organization that is designing and implementing the new standardized exams, decided to split the tests into two parts.

Colorado education officials stress the two parts make up one complete assessment.

“Failure to take a portion of the test would not give a full picture of students’ mastery of the standards, and the score would not be valid,” said Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for CDE. “It’s really no different than previous tests – TCAP and CSAP – which were also broken down into sections of about an hour or so. If students don’t take the whole test, their scores will be incomplete.”

It’s unclear what sort of consequences a waiver from the tests would have for the state’s school accountability and teacher effectiveness systems, which are dependent upon the results of both parts of the assessments.

The first part the PARCC test is designed to asses a student’s critical-thinking skills. During the English tests, for example, students read multiple passages and then write what they’ve learned. In the math portion, students are asked to solve multi-step problems that require reasoning.

The second part of the exam, to be administered near the end of the school year, gauges comprehension of both literary and mathematical concepts.

Both sections of the exam will be used to determine a student’s proficiency in English and math. The state will also use that data in teacher evaluations and school ratings.

The discussion by the Jeffco school board to seek a waiver is the most recent development in an ongoing debate about testing in Colorado and across the nation.

Last year, the Douglas County School District’s Board of Education pitched a bill to the Colorado General Assembly that would have allowed some school districts to completely opt out of the state’s entire testing system — if they could prove they were academically successful. But that bill was watered down to instead create a committee to review the state’s testing system. The panel wrapped up the majority of its work earlier this week.

As computer-based exams were rolled out for the first time last spring, education officials across the state raised concerns about how much time is devoted to testing and the drain it takes on physical resources like computer labs.

And this fall, seniors at mostly suburban and affluent schools ditched their required tests in science and social studies claiming the results meant nothing to their future college or career ambitions.

And as Congress takes up the issue of the nation’s education laws, how much testing is required by the federal government will be a cornerstone issue. Under current law, schools across the nation are required to test all students in English and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. They’re also required to test one grade in elementary, middle, and high school in science.

A bill just introduced by Democratic lawmakers at the Colorado statehouse would roll back the state’s testing system to the so-called federal minimum.

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.