How much to test?

Task force report kicks off legislative testing debates

Members of the testing task force presented to legislators Wednesday in the Capitol's new - but somewhat pillar-obstructed - hearing room.

Legislators quickly got into the weeds on testing Wednesday after receiving a new report on the issue, previewing future debates on the amount of testing, equity, parent opt out and a host of other issues.

The Standards and Assessments Task Force, created by the 2014 legislature, presented its final 25-page report to the House and Senate education committees Wednesday morning. The group is recommending significant cutbacks in high school testing and some reductions and streamlining of K-3 tests and evaluations. (See this article for more details on the recommendations and the links in the box below for the full report and appendices.)

Testing is expected to be the top education issue of the 2015 session. While the main recommendations of the task force report have been known for some time, the official release seemed to focus legislators’ attention and sparked nearly three hours of questions to and dialogue with task force members. The Capitol’s new second-floor hearing room was packed with a crowd of well over 100 for the report’s release, although the audience thinned considerably as the discussion wore on.

Here are some snapshots of the discussion on key issues.

Equity and tracking student progress

A key concern for some education interest groups is whether reduction of testing will make it harder to gather the annual data on student academic growth that reform groups say is necessary to track the progress of at-risk and minority students.

Several Democratic lawmakers asked about the issue.

Task force member Lisa Escarcega said, “There are other growth models out there” and that growth data is more important in earlier grades than in high school. She’s the chief accountability and research officer for the Aurora Public Schools.

“This discussion we’re having now is at the crux of the difficulty the task force was having,” said member Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “The question is what do we give up when we go down that road” of reducing testing.

Jaeger said while new ways of measuring growth through local testing systems are on the horizon, “We’re not there yet. … The challenge is that it is not a flip of a switch, it is a system change.”

High school testing

The task force recommends that mandatory state tests be eliminated in 11th and 12th grades, and part of the group wanted to eliminate 9th grade tests as well.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, asked about that, saying, “It seems a little bit to me like turning off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter” and it’s important to have data on high school academic growth.

Task force chair Dan Snowberger said the group heeded public input on the issue, which was critical of high school testing. Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango schools.

In his opening remarks, Snowberger said, “The current system is hugely burdensome. … We’re hoping this report will give you traction to do something to reduce the pressure on our schools.”

John Creighton, a St. Vrain board member, said, “You try to take the one that makes the most sense to reduce,” and that was high school tests.

“I think there are valid arguments on both sides,” said Johnston.

State and local tests

The task force made no recommendations about local school and district tests, although Snowberger cautioned lawmakers about trying to limit local testing. “We want to recognize that as a local control issue.”

There were several lawmaker questions on the issue, and task force members emphasized the value teachers put on the usefulness of local tests in helping guide classroom instruction.

Social studies

The task force’s recommendation to end all 12th grade tests would in effect eliminate that social studies test, but the group made no further recommendation on that exam. It was split on whether to continue or eliminate social studies tests in 4th and 7th grades.

Snowberger said, “All of us recognize that social studies has a high value” but in the overall context of testing he felt it was worth taking a “pause” on social studies. Creighton agreed.

Parent opt-out

The ability of parents to opt their children out of testing is a top concern for some parent groups and Republican legislators.

The task force recommended that the state create an accountability “timeout” for the 2015-16 school year in case significant numbers of students don’t take tests this spring. (Districts’ accreditation ratings can be lowered if fewer than 95 percent of students take state tests.) The group also recommended that the state provide clear information to parents about the impacts of opting out.

Bethany Drosendahl, a Colorado Springs parent, was the only task force member who dissented from the report and didn’t sign the document.

“Parents have a right to refuse. We are not asking for that right. We already have it,” she told legislators.

Drosendahl also said she supports broad district testing flexibility because it’s “the best way for accommodating the vast variety of individual learners.”

Snowberger said final agreement by the group went down to the wire, including lengthy conference calls last Friday and on Sunday evening, when Drosendahl indicated she couldn’t sign on to the final report. He added, “Until everyone signed this morning, I could not have told you everyone was in agreement.”

Future reforms

The task force’s recommendations are based on the conclusion, as the report puts it, that options for changing the system are “severely restricted by the current federal testing requirements.”

The group didn’t address the issue of what could be done if those requirements change until its second-to-the last meeting. “We just didn’t have time to come to consensus,” Snowberger said.

So the panel’s “long-term recommendations are questions,” as member Syna Morgan put it. She’s chief academic officer of the Jeffco schools.

She added, “We believe there is an opportunity to have common ground” on a future testing system that’s much more flexible for districts and students. “It’s going to be challenging, but we believe we can get there.”

Where lawmakers go from here

Five testing bills have so far been introduced in the 2015 sessions.

There are two Democratic bills in the Senate, one that would reduce testing to federal minimum requirements and one to cut back on social studies testing.

Three Republican bills in the House are more comprehensive and propose various combinations of testing cuts, a withdrawal from the Common Core State Standards and PARCC tests, and greater district flexibility in assessments.

Hearings aren’t likely until mid-February and there’s also talk of a bipartisan bill on testing only, although nothing definite has surfaced.

What others are saying

Education advocacy groups reacted quickly to the report. A group of nine reform and business-related groups led by Colorado Succeeds issued a statement saying, “Colorado’s students spend too much time taking tests, and our state needs to address this problem. … Legislators should respect the opinions of the experts who were entrusted with this task.”

Colorado Children’s Campaign CEO Chris Watney issued a separate statement, saying. “We believe the recommendations strike the right balance.”

And the Colorado Education Association issued a lengthy statement expressing teacher concerns about testing and – without details – calling for “testing solutions beyond task force recommendations.”

Union spokesman Mike Wetzel said, “Teachers, parents, and students want more than what was recommended today. Just as we worked with this task force, we’ll partner with legislators to explore what we can do together to lessen the testing burden and return time and resources to classroom instruction.”

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.