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.”

heads up

Tennessee will release TNReady test scores on Thursday. Here are five things to know.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

When Tennessee unveils its latest standardized test scores on Thursday, the results won’t count for much.

Technical problems marred the return to statewide online testing this spring, prompting the passage of several emergency state laws that rendered this year’s TNReady scores mostly inconsequential. As a result, poor results can’t be used to hold students, educators, or schools accountable — for instance, firing a teacher or taking over a struggling school through the state’s Achievement School District.

But good or bad, the scores still can be useful, say teachers like Josh Rutherford, whose 11th-grade students were among those who experienced frequent online testing interruptions in April.

“There are things we can learn from the data,” said Rutherford, who teaches English at Houston County High School. “I think it would be unprofessional to simply dismiss this year’s scores.”

Heading into this week’s data dump, here are five things to know:

1. This will be the biggest single-day release of state scores since the TNReady era began three years ago.

Anyone with internet access will be able to view state- and district-level scores for math, English, and science for grades 3-12. And more scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released publicly in a few weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

2. Still, this year’s results are anticlimactic.

There are two major reasons. First, many educators and parents question the scores’ reliability due to days of online testing headaches. They also worry that high school students stopped trying after legislators stepped in to say the scores don’t necessarily have to count in final grades. Second, because the scores won’t carry their intended weight, the stakes are lower this year. For instance, teachers have the option of nullifying their evaluation scores. And the state also won’t give each school an A-F grade this fall as originally planned. TNReady scores were supposed to be incorporated into both of those accountability measures.

3. The state is looking into the reliability of the online test scores.

In addition to an internal review by the Education Department, the state commissioned an independent analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization. Researchers for the Virginia-based technical group studied the impact of Tennessee’s online interruptions by looking into testing irregularity reports filed in schools and by scrutinizing variances from year to year and school to school, among other things.

4. The reliability of paper-and-pencil test scores are not in question.

Only about half of Tennessee’s 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested on computers. The other half — in grades 3-5 and many students in grades 6-8 — took the exams the old-fashioned way. Though there were some complaints related to paper testing too, state officials say they’re confident about those results. Even so, the Legislature made no distinction between the online and paper administrations of TNReady when they ordered that scores only count if they benefit students, teachers, and schools.

5. Ultimately, districts and school communities will decide how to use this year’s data.

Even within the same district, it wasn’t uncommon for one school to experience online problems and another to enjoy a much smoother testing experience. “Every district was impacted differently,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization. “It’s up to the local district to look at the data and make decisions based on those local experiences.”

District leaders have been reviewing the embargoed scores for several weeks, and they’ll share them with teachers in the days and weeks ahead. As for families, parents can ask to see their students’ individual score reports so they can learn from this year’s results, too. Districts distribute those reports in different ways, but they’re fair game beginning Thursday. You can learn more here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.