Assessment changes on tap

Colorado hustles to roll out new testing plan

State testing is going to take up a lot less space on school calendars in 2016 than it did last spring.

The main 2016 “testing window,” recently announced by the Department of Education, is scheduled for April 11-29.

That calendar is very different from last spring’s, when state assessments of various kinds stretched across three periods totaling more than 12 weeks, starting in March and ending in May.

The testing window isn’t the only thing that’s changing because of a law passed by the 2015 legislature and changes announced shortly thereafter by the multi-state PARCC testing group.

Other key changes include elimination of state tests for high school seniors, different tests for ninth and 10th graders and a cutback is social studies testing.

But while CDE is moving quickly to set up the new system, lots of questions remain to be answered, and key elements need to be approved by the federal government. That means students, parents and teachers don’t yet have a full picture of what state testing will look like in 2016.

Here are the details of the changes in the CMAS system, how they could affect different kinds of tests and students and what questions remain to be answered.

Time on test

The testing window is the period of time during which a school has to start and complete testing; every day of the window isn’t necessarily taken up by tests.

Next spring schools are supposed to fit language arts, math, science, social studies and alternate tests within the April 11-29 window. (This year the first part of language arts and math tests were given in March, followed by social studies and science in April and the second part of language arts and math at the end of the school year.)

Test time chart
Source: Colorado Department of Education

That may seem like a lot of tests, but PARCC also is reducing the total time consumed for language arts and math tests and number of testing sessions, known as “units” in assessment lingo. (See this story for details on PARCC’s plans for 2016.)

School districts like the single, smaller window. Last spring’s separate windows required a lot of duplicate set-up time, testing directors say.

“We really appreciate the change,” said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation for the Cherry Creek Schools. “That will help with a lot of issues.”

And CDE is providing an escape hatch for districts that can’t fit all those tests into three weeks. Districts can use a window of up to six weeks for language arts and math tests if needed because of limitations on the number of laptops and other devices available for testing use.

“We expect the vast majority to use” the three-week window, said Joyce Zurkowski, CDE executive director of assessment.

High school testing

Expansion of state tests into the 11th and 12th grades during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years sparked much of the public outcry faced by legislators during the last session.

Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School / File photo
Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School / File photo

The lawmakers’ ultimate solution, House Bill 15-1323, significantly reduced high school testing while making few changes at other grade levels.

Seniors – Students are off the hook for state tests in their last year of high school, so there will be no science and social studies to boycott next fall.

Juniors – The new law eliminates the full language arts and math tests in 11th grade, but the school year won’t be test-free for these students. Officials at CDE haven’t decided when to give high school science and social studies tests. But they acknowledge that spring of junior year is the logical time to test, rather than in freshman or sophomore years. And all juniors will still have to take the ACT test or an equivalent.

Sophomores – It’s too early to say what 2016 testing will look like for 10th graders. The new law proposes eliminating language arts and math tests for 11th graders, replacing those with a shorter college-and-career readiness test like the Accuplacer. That test also has to be aligned to state academic standards. However, this is a change that must be approved by the federal government.

And even if Washington signs off, it isn’t known yet which readiness test will be used, nor which 11th grade college entrance exam will be given. The new law requires those contracts be put out to competitive bid, which hasn’t happened yet. CDE officials acknowledge that the likely competitors are the ACT organization and the College Board.

Freshmen – Students will continue to take PARCC language arts and math tests in the first year of high school, just as their predecessors have done for years. CDE will have to make changes in the math tests, given that they won’t be given later in high school, as was the case for the last two years.

Social studies tests

To be decided
  • Whether language arts and math tests in 9th grade only will meet federal requirements for high school testing
  • Which college and career readiness tests sophomores and juniors will take
  • When high school science and social studies tests will be given
  • Which schools will give social studies tests next year
  • Extent of flexibility in testing some ELL students
  • Definition of “grade level” for early literacy tests
  • Double testing of students in any pilot assessment program

During the legislative testing debates these tests looked they were headed for the chopping block. But a compromise detailed in another testing measure (Senate Bill 15-056) saved the exams by drastically reducing the number of students who have to take them every year.

Now the tests will be given in one third of state schools every year, to one grade each in elementary, middle and high school. Stay tuned for CDE to decide which schools will be on the 2016 list.

English language learners

The new law proposes to allow districts to give state tests in other languages to English language learners for up to five years, instead the three now allowed. ELL students enrolled in a school for fewer than 12 months wouldn’t have to take English language arts tests.

The legislation also proposes to not use the English language arts scores of ELL students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than two years as part of school and district accountability calculations.

Some of these changes have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Early learners

One non-controversial element of the testing law was the streamlining of how students are evaluated for school readiness and how the reading skills of K-3 students are determined under the READ Act. There were concerns about duplication of assessments and about the need to retest students who read a grade level.

If schools evaluate students within the first 60 days of school, the results of READ Act tests can be used for the literacy component of school readiness. The law also streamlines some of the readiness and READ Act record keeping.

Students who demonstrate reading proficiency on the first test don’t have to take additional tests during the year. However, CDE has to set cut scores to define grade-level reading, and those won’t be determined until late summer.

Mouse or pencil

Students taking tests

Last spring the state allowed districts to request paper tests for 3rd grade language arts and math and for math in other grades. Those got only limited use around the state.

The new law allows districts to request paper tests for any grade. The state has no role in deciding, so parents anxious to have paper tests will have to make their case to their districts by next fall.

But CDE is working with test providers on the logistics of having all tests available on paper. “It’s a pretty significant shift for science and social studies,” Zurkowski said,

At least one set of paper tests also must be available for READ Act assessments.

Opting out

The right of parents to pull children out of state tests and the impact of low test participation rates on school and district ratings were hot issues during the legislative session.

Another sign at rally
Sign at anti-testing rally

The Senate and House ultimately couldn’t agree on an opt-out bill, but HB 15-1323 contains compromise language that gives districts some guidance on how to handle the issue.

Here’s how CDE explains it: “Each district must adopt a written policy and procedure allowing a student’s parent to excuse a student from participating in one or more state assessments. If a parent excuses his/her student from participating in an assessment, the district must not impose negative consequences on students or parents, including prohibiting school attendance, imposing an unexcused absence, or prohibiting participation in extracurricular activities. At the same time, the district cannot impose an unreasonable burden or requirement on a student to discourage the student from taking an assessment or encourage the student’s parent to excuse his/her student from the assessment.”

Evaluation & accountability

The testing law was driven partly by concerns that low scores on the new tests and high opt-out rates might unfairly affect teacher evaluations and school and district ratings. (Federal law requires states to penalize districts where participation rates fall below 95 percent on two or more tests.)

Evaluation illustration
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN

As on many other issues, the new law offered a compromise. How the U.S. Department of Education reacts to the changes remains to be seen.

Teachers – Results from last spring’s state tests cannot be used to calculate the student growth measures used in teachers’ 2014-15 school year evaluations. Instead, districts can only use growth data derived from local tests.

The state’s evaluation system requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on “multiple measures” of student academic growth, including more than data derived from state test results. A 2014 law created a one-year timeout for that requirement, meaning individual districts could use 50 percent, 0 percent or any percentage in-between when doing evaluations for the school year that just ended. Districts took that flexibility to heart (see story).

Starting with the upcoming 2015-16 school year, 50 percent of teacher evaluations must be based on student academic growth measures. The new law provides an out in years when state test results aren’t promptly available. If growth data isn’t given to districts at least two weeks before the school year ends, districts don’t have to use that data for evaluations but can instead use it in evaluations for the following school year.

Schools and districts – The upcoming school year will be time-out for accreditation ratings. No new ratings will be announced this autumn, meaning schools and districts will retain the ratings they were assigned at the end of 2014.

Districts and schools that have been rated in the two lowest categories for five consecutive years are subject to state intervention. That clock has been stopped for one year.

There will be ratings issued again in the fall of 2016. They will go into effect, and the accountability clock will restart, on July 1, 2017.

See this Chalkbeat story for details about the district ratings issued last November, and use this database to find individual district ratings.

Pilot programs

Another compromise element of the testing law was creation of pilot programs through which districts and groups of districts could try out new ways of testing students and holding schools accountable.

The idea, if it gets off the ground, is that two programs will be chosen from the first group of pilots, and that one of those might eventually become the new state testing and accountability system.

This plan will require multiple levels of federal approval, the first of which may affect districts’ interest in trying the experiment. That question is whether students who participate in a pilot have to continue taking regular state tests as well.

Getting those questions answered

More info

CDE is working to get most of the open questions answered by late summer or early fall.

The department already has opened informal talks with the federal department, trying to feel out what Washington is thinking. “We first have been having conversations with them” and have sent a letter detailing the changes in Colorado law, said Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley. As to how DOE will react, “We can’t answer what that will look like,’ she said.

Hawley and Zurkowski said it could be anytime between early July and early August before Colorado gets “formal guidance” from DOE.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires annual testing of every state’s students and an accountability system for districts and schools, among other requirements.

Colorado has some flexibility under a formal agreement called a waiver. If DOE doesn’t approve of changes in the state’s system, that could lead to revocation of the waiver, re-imposing the more onerous requirements of ESEA on the state.

States that don’t follow federal requirements are subject to possible loss of federal education funding, although that’s a multi-step process that could take time to play out.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.


District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth


Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.

exclusive

Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to [email protected]

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.

Districtwide

School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.

2017

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%

2015

School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7

2015

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.

2017

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10

2015

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.