Testing Time

Testing time shuffles schedules, impacts instruction

A student at DSST: Cole works on a computer. (Chalkbeat file)

As close to half of the state’s school districts wrap up their first week of standardized testing and the rest prepare to start, school and district leaders have mixed feelings about how state standardized tests affect instructional time.

In some Colorado districts, concern over the amount of staff and student time dedicated to testing instead of instruction has risen to unprecedented levels. At least one district is conducting a survey to gauge how much staff time is tied up in testing, while across the state, some students and their parents are refusing to participate in the test.

In other districts, leaders say the new state tests are themselves a learning experience for students and that this round of tests will not have a dramatically bigger impact on instructional time than in previous years.

For all, the testing window is a time of unusual schedules and of juggling resources, staff, and schedules.

“Basically all work on improving instruction comes to a halt so that the buildings can manage the disruption of the testing windows,” said Jason Glass, the superintendent of the Eagle County Schools, which includes Vail.

“We all recognize that it’s taking instructional time to do it, but we also all recognize that it’s required by the state,” said Elizabeth Fagen, the superintendent of Douglas County schools. “So you have to figure out how to make it work.”

Logistics and technology

Colorado is using a new set of assessments this year. The language arts and math tests were developed by the testing company Pearson for PARCC, one of two multi-state testing groups, and are based on the Common Core State Standards. Science and social studies tests are Colorado-only exams. (Read more about this year’s assessment program here.)

Many districts have been preparing for the shift from the previous paper-and-pencil tests to the new assessments for several years by purchasing devices and training teachers and students on how to administer and take the test.

District leaders said that their spending on technology is an investment in classrooms and instruction, not just in online testing. But a school’s technological set-up is part of determining how much finagling is necessary to accommodate the tests. 

In the tiny Center district in the San Luis Valley, where all students have a laptop or device, Superintendent George Welsh said students can test in their classrooms.

In other districts, however, schools are repurposing rooms and constructing schedules that allow students to use available devices. That means that the technology or space isn’t available for regular class uses.

In Colorado Springs 11, some libraries will be testing centers for the remainder of the year, said chief financial officer officer Glenn Gustafson. Library technology staff at the school will be focused on supporting the online assessments between March and May.

And in the Montrose-Olathe district on the Western Slope, the district has converted art and music rooms in all elementary schools to testing centers. That means those teachers are roaming until end of school year, according to Mark MacHale, the district’s superintendent.

Staff resources

The staff time devoted to preparing for tests has come under fire.

In the Boulder Valley School District, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said, the district is conducting a survey in its schools of how much staff time is dedicated to test preparations.

“It’s literally countless hours,” said Rhonda Haniford, the principal of Centaurus High School. “One of my assistant principals is full-time working on this. I have a teacher who is partly dedicated to test coordination and another who’s focused on accommodations.”

Glass, the Eagle County superintendent, said that professional development for teachers and teacher-leaders comes to a halt during testing time. “We just can’t afford to have building leaders away in the event something goes wrong in terms of the testing technology.”

He said school district employees were spending time preparing for tests that could otherwise be spent on “the art and science of teaching.”

“The daily and hourly rate costs for hundreds of employees (or thousands in the case of larger districts) is a significant opportunity cost impact,” he said.

Teachers and administrators also had to be trained in how to proctor the online tests, which are being used in most schools, said Matt Reynolds, Douglas County’s chief assessment and systems performance officer.

High school challenge

Testing schedules look different in elementary, middle, and high schools. In Denver, most elementary school literacy tests are administered during the schools’ literacy block early in the day, which is already more than two hours long.

“It’s no more complicated than it was in the past,” said Rob Beam, the principal at Johnson Elementary School in Denver. “It’s actually less complicated in some ways, because the computer changes the accommodations.”

For instance, students who previously had the tests read out loud to them by an adult can now listen to the test with headphones, Beam said. Johnson school is also part of an extended learning time program, which Beam said might ease some concerns about lost instructional time.

But scheduling is more complicated in high schools, where classes are often shorter and where a single class might have students from multiple grades. A class with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, for instance, would be interrupted by each grade’s tests.

Districts have taken different approaches. In the Elizabeth district, Superintendent Douglas Bissonette said, “as for high school students in grades not being tested, they will not be required to attend school during testing. It proves nearly impossible to plan teacher and student schedules and classroom spaces to accommodate both testing and instruction at the same time for our comprehensive high school.”

The Cheyenne Mountain district took a similar approach, said Superintendent Walt Cooper. “We need to do this because of the numbers of staff necessary to proctor,” he said, noting that scheduling is his single biggest frustration with the tests.

But in Aurora, chief information officer Steven Clagg said that while scheduling in high schools is “a challenge” because testing times are longer than normal class periods, there will be no late starts or early releases for high schoolers.

Meanwhile, at Centaurus High School in Boulder, Haniford said, teachers in mixed-grade classes search for ways to create meaningful assignments for students who are not testing while not leaving the students who are testing behind.

An intrusion, or part of the program?

Opinions about the tests’ value vary. In Denver, Ivan Duran, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, said that while testing does put a pause in business as usual at a school, “assessment’s part of the instructional program. We build it into the schedule.”

Duran said that the technological investment and skills students need to take the tests are also useful to them in non-testing context.

DPS Chief Academic Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust said that district’s stance is that the senior tests are not “the most instructionally appropriate use” of students’ time. But, she said, the new tests mean there is “greater alignment between assessments, standards, and college- and career- readiness.” She said the new question formats are “nice resources for teachers to design their own classroom tests” and that the data tests provide is useful.

But in Boulder, concerns about how tests affect instructional time has been burgeoning since this fall, when a group of seniors protested against science and social studies tests for 12th graders. “Buy-in is very low,” said Centaurus principal Haniford.

The students’ concerns are mirrored by district and school officials. Superintendent Messinger said that while the district is not opposed to assessment in theory, “we think the current level is burdensome.” Centaurus principal Haniford said she is concerned that the tests do not give teachers useful feedback in a timely manner.

On the day testing began, Haniford said that her phone was ringing regularly with calls from parents wanting to pull their children out of tests. She said the major concern parents shared was that the tests take away students’ time to prepare for tests like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, which could earn them college credit or an advanced high school degree.

Haniford said those students who were not taking the test could spend the time in the school’s student center.

Capitol Editor Todd Engdahl contributed research to this story.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.