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.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: