New tone for SBE

No cow too sacred for some State Board members

State Board of Education / File photo

The State Board of Education has taken some surprise actions on testing in its first two meetings of 2015, and there’s also a new tone in some board members’ questions and comments during presentations by Department of Education staffers.

The board voted Wednesday to end penalties for districts if they drop below required test participation levels because of parents opting kids out of tests (see story).

Thursday’s meeting didn’t yield any big decisions as board members sat through a long agenda of briefings on some major issues. Most of those agenda items were progress reports on matters like testing and high school graduation guidelines, work primarily mandated by the legislature in the wave of education reform bills passed over the last six years.

Some member comments indicated an interesting level of skepticism about the basic premises behind those programs. Here’s a sampling:

Testing and academic standards – State testing chief Joyce Zurkowski gave the board an update on the complicated process for setting “cut scores” to establish achievement levels on the science and social studies tests given to high school seniors last fall.

Republican board member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs called the descriptions of the four achievement levels “kind of hokey” and suggested the test results be reported merely as percentiles of how students scored. People want to know “how do you stack up against other Colorado students.” He cited Iowa Test of Basic Skills results as an example.

Zurkowski explained that the tests are designed to show student knowledge on academic standards, not just percentile comparisons.

“The problem I have is … the standards don’t mean anything. They are a subjective measure that some individuals or groups have put together,” Durham said. Just report test scores “by percentile and send them out to the schools and let them do what they want,” he suggested.

Board member Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, called that “good old 1950s information” and argued that reporting test scores in that way “isn’t the goal that has been stated by our legislature.”

Member Deb Scheffel, a Douglas County Republican, warned that reporting test scores by the four achievement levels is “creating a narrative of failure” and asked “What are our options?” (She was referring to the results of the new science and social studies tests for elementary and middle school students. Only about a third of fifth and eighth graders scored in the two highest levels on science tests, and 17 percent of fourth and seventh graders scored at those levels on social studies. See this story for details.)

Pulling out of Common Core – The board also was briefed Thursday on the mechanics of pulling Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests. (Basically the board can’t do that by itself – see this legal memo.)

Scheffel suggested that the state needs less-detailed standards that create “a core of commonality rather than the pervasive commonality we’ve created with Common Core and PARCC.”

Republican member Pam Mazanec, also of Douglas County, said this about the Common Core: “For me it does not matter if these standards are perfect. I’m opposed to them because they invite federal intrusion. Standards drive curriculum, they invite federal intrusion in curriculum.”

Graduation guidelines – One of the many components of the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids law was creation of high school graduation “guidelines” that school districts are supposed to meet or exceed. The board was updated (see slides) on that long-running process; the eventual guidelines won’t go into effect until the end of the decade.

Durham complained, “These are not guidelines” and should be labeled as requirements. Scheffel said she felt the proposed plan was much too detailed. “What is the minimum the State Board can do? Being heavy on the regulatory side doesn’t really serve the kids, the parents, the schools,” she said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the guidelines later in the spring.

Chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, closed the long afternoon session by calling it “a good meeting” but gently noting, “I do get a little concerned about the accusatory note sometimes toward the staff.” (Durham had been a bit abrupt with Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl at various times Wednesday.)

Neal also told Durham, “I strongly suggest that when you have a motion you write it out.” Durham’s motions on testing in January and on Wednesday were made orally. Neal also suggested members should have a month to consider such motions before voting. Durham didn’t say anything in reply.

Following up on Wednesday’s news

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond on Thursday sent a letter to the state’s superintendents advising them how to handle the State Board’s Tuesday votes on testing waivers and parent opt-outs.

“Districts should continue preparations for the administration of the upcoming assessments,” Hammond wrote.

On the question of opt outs, he advised, “The effect of this motion is that districts will not be penalized by a lowering of their accreditation rating should their student participation rates fall below 95 percent on the PARCC assessments due to parental refusal of their students to take the PARCC assessments. Districts still need to engage in good faith efforts to test all students in accordance with state and federal law and maintain documentation of parent refusals.”

See the full letter below.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: