The last day

Testing agreement comes in session’s final hours

The debate on testing, the most divisive education issue of the 2015 legislature, ended on the session’s last day with self-congratulatory speeches and strong votes for a compromise bill.

What matters for kids and parents is that the total time a student spends testing while moving from kindergarten to 12th grade will drop from about 137 hours to 102 hours, according to bill supporters. The biggest reduction will be in the high school years, and the changes go into effect for the 2015-16 school year. (See this chart for details by grade.)

There’s plenty of grousing that the bill doesn’t go far enough. But in the end it was more than good enough for the legislature, judging by the tone of Wednesday’s speeches. House Bill 15-1323 passed the Senate 30-5 and the House 55-8 after that chamber agreed to final Senate amendments. (See the bottom of this story for the no votes in each house.)

The need to produce a testing bill and to avoid the political embarrassment of not passing one proved too compelling as the session drew to a close.

As usual, when a contentious issue is about to be decided, most lawmakers emphasized the positive in closing speeches.

In the 35-member Senate, 13 senators spoke for an hour on the bill.

“This has been a long journey and a lot of hard work,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and a key figure in crafting the compromise.

Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, was the most effusive: “Something magic happened here.”

Representatives were brief, with only half-a-dozen members speaking for less than half an hour.

“On the very last day of the session we did it,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon and a prime sponsor.

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson and one of bill’s strongest GOP supporters, noted, “It’s probably been one of the more difficult bills this session. … It lightens the load where appropriate. It still maintains transparency and accountability.”

What the testing bill does

The compromise testing-reduction bill successfully walks a fine line between earlier proposals from the House and Senate.

The final plan makes changes both obvious and subtle in the Colorado Measures of Academic Success system, and its final shape remains to be determined, given that parts of the bill require sign-off by the federal government.

Two things definitely aren’t in the bill. It doesn’t withdraw Colorado from the Common Core State Standards nor from the PARCC multi-state tests. That’s a sore point for some legislators and activist parent groups. And the bill doesn’t reduce testing enough for the Colorado Education Association.

Here are the details on the compromise’s key points and how negotiators reconciled the differences between the two chambers.

High school testing – This was the big point of division from the start, and the recent expansion of CMAS tests into the 11th and 12th grades was the main spark for parent agitation and students opting out in the past year.

The federal government requires one set of language arts and math tests be given in high school. The House and Senate bills assumed that requirement would be met by 10th grade testing, but the two chambers disagreed over whether 9th grade tests should continue. Moving away from the assumption that full 10th grade testing was needed was a key factor in breaking the deadlock.

The compromise keeps the 9th grade tests but replaces the 10th grade CMAS exams with a college and workforce readiness test like the ACT Aspire. This test takes about three hours, compared to 11 for the two CMAS tests. Backers of the idea hope Aspire or something similar will be more relevant and therefore more attractive to students. Students will continue to take the main ACT test in the 11th grade.

Because the federal government doesn’t recognize 9th grade as part of high school, this provision will need federal approval.

One subtlety here is that because the two ACT-type tests aren’t part of the federally dictated CMAS system, student opt-out rates wouldn’t affect district accreditation ratings. Compromise supporters described this with the zen-like explanation that the tests are “not mandatory and not optional.” Districts have to offer them, but students don’t have to take them. The state would have to put the 10th and 11th grade tests to competitive bid every five years.

The current schedule of giving science tests one time each in elementary, middle and high school will continue, but it’s left up to the Department of Education to decide in which grades.

Opting out – The bill guarantees parents the right to opt students out of tests and that students won’t suffer any consequences or punishment for doing so. It also specifies that districts cannot discourage students from taking tests. Opting out was a hot topic at the Capitol this year, and variations of opting out language were offered in several other bills, including a stand-alone measure passed by the Senate but killed in a House committee.

Pilot programs – There’s been a push by some lawmakers and districts for the ability to give their own tests rather than the CMAS/PARCC tests. Current federal law requires a single test be given to all students in a state. The Senate and House were way apart on this issue.

The compromise allows any district or group of districts to apply to the state for approval to “pilot” new tests. Eventually two tests would be chosen from those pilots. And in the end the Department of Education – with legislative approval – could use one new set of tests statewide. (There are a lot of ifs in this plan, including at least three separate federal sign-offs.)

Timeouts – Both original bills had various provisions to protect schools and districts from accountability consequences of new test results and to change how growth data derived from results is used in teacher evaluations.

The compromise creates a one-year accountability timeout for school and districts in 2015-16. Teachers get a break on use of state data for their 2014-15 evaluations. In future years districts don’t have to use state growth data if it comes in too late to meet deadlines for finishing evaluations. Late data would be used in subsequent years’ evaluations.

Paper & pencil – The original Senate version proposed allowing both parents and districts to request paper tests. The House would have given that option only to districts. The compromise allows individual schools or districts to request paper exams. The goal here was to avoid having some students in the same class taking online tests while other kids used paper versions.

Social studies – These tests now are given once in elementary, middle and high school. They rolled out only a year ago and as such were part of the uproar about “over-testing.” A separate measure that also passed Wednesday, Senate Bill 15-056, creates a compromise. Instead of being given to every student in the three grades every year, tests will be given in selected schools. The goal is to have the test given in an individual school every three years.

There are several issues that weren’t disputed by the two houses and that were carried into the compromise plan. Those include:

  • Requirements for notification of parents about the purposes and uses of testing and about testing schedules.
  • Language increasing the number of years that native-language tests can be given to ELL students and recently arrived immigrants. (This also requires a federal waiver.)
  • Streamlining of school readiness and READ Act literacy assessments, primarily eliminating some duplicative tests.

Many play a role in compromise, now and in future

The final testing bill was crafted to meet an iron law of Capitol math: To become law, a bill needs at least 33 House votes, 18 in the Senate, and one governor’s signature.

As noted above, the testing measure adds a fourth party to the discussion – the U.S. Department of Education.

Colorado’s overall system of tests and accountability is approved through what’s referred to as a “waiver” granted by the department. That agreement allows the state to do some things its own way rather than strictly follow the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Changes in the state system by either the legislature or the state education department have to be reported to Washington through a process that – confusingly – also is called a “waiver.”

If the federal education department doesn’t like such individual changes, it could revoke the state’s overall waiver, potentially creating all sorts of administrative problems for CDE and districts. If a state is out of compliance with federal requirements it theoretically faces the loss of some federal funds, primarily grants to low-income students.

Hammering out an agreement

Lawmakers had a hard time all session coming to agreement on testing. Legislative leaders started moving things along last week.

Members of both education committees and other lawmakers met in the speaker’s office one evening last week to hash things out.

A smaller group of legislative leaders convened last weekend to keep the momentum going. Lobbyists and leaders from the full spectrum of education interest groups also were involved.

The plan started to take final shape at a meeting of about half-a-dozen lawmakers who gathered around the press table in the House chambers last Sunday afternoon.

But there was nervousness about the deal until the end. Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, told his colleagues he was unsure as recently as Tuesday that things would come together.

“It’s been the most challenging work I’ve done,” Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, told Chalkbeat.

How they voted

Voting no in the House were GOP Reps. Perry Buck of Windsor, Justin Everett of Littleton, Steve Humphrey of Windsor, Janak Joshi of Colorado Springs, Gordon Klingenschmitt of Colorado Springs, Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, Kim Ransom of Highlands Ranch and Lori Saine of Firestone.

Voting no in the Senate were Republican Sens. David Balmer of Centennial, Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Tim Neville of Littleton and Laura Woods of Thornton.

A separate but virtually identical measure, Senate Bill 15-257, was allowed to die as the session adjourned. It was the original Senate proposal, but both it and HB 15-1323 were amended earlier this week to be the same.

See this staff summary of bill as of May 5.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”