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.

Testing reboot

ACT do-overs pay off for 40 percent of Tennessee high school seniors who tried

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee’s $2 million investment in helping high school seniors retake the ACT test appears to be paying off for a second year in a row.

Almost three-fourths of the class of 2018 took the national college entrance test last fall for a second time, doubling the participation rate in Tennessee’s ACT Senior Retake Day for public schools. State officials announced Wednesday that 40 percent of the do-overs resulted in a higher overall score.

Of the 52,000 students who participated in the initiative’s second year, 2,333 raised their average composite to a 21 or higher, making them eligible for HOPE Scholarship funds of up to $16,000 for tuition. That’s potentially $37 million in state-funded scholarships.

In addition, Tennessee students are expected to save almost $8 million in remedial course costs — and a lot of time — since more of them hit college-readiness benchmarks that allow direct enrollment into credit-bearing coursework.

But besides the benefits to students, the early results suggest that Tennessee is inching closer to raising its ACT average to the national average of 21 by 2020, one of four goals in Tennessee’s five-year strategic plan.

After years of mostly stagnant scores, the state finally cracked 20 last year when the class of 2017 scored an average of 20.1, buoyed in part by the senior retake strategy.

(The ACT testing organization will release its annual report of state-by-state scores in August, based on the most recent test taken. Tennessee will release its own report based on the highest score, which is what colleges use.)

Tennessee is one of 13 states that require its juniors to take the ACT or SAT and, in an effort to boost scores, became the first to pay for public school seniors to retake their ACTs in 2016. Only a third of that class took advantage of the opportunity, but enough students scored higher to make it worth expanding the voluntary program in its second year.

Last fall, the state worked with local districts to make it easier for seniors to participate. The retake happened during the school day in students’ own schools, instead of on a Saturday morning at an ACT testing site.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the expanded access has paid off tenfold. “Now, more Tennessee students are able to access scholarship funding, gain admission to colleges and universities, and earn credit for their work from day one,” she said.

Of the state’s four urban districts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves Davidson County, increased its average composite score the most (up .5 to 18.4), followed by Hamilton County (up .3 to 19.4), and Shelby County Schools, (up .2 to 17.1). Knox County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which operates high schools in Memphis, saw slight drops from their retakes and will retain their higher average scores taken earlier.

Statewide, 10 school systems logged a half point or more of growth from their junior test day to the senior retake:

  • Anderson County, up .6 to 19.3
  • Arlington City, up .6 to 22.5
  • Collierville City, up .6 to 24.3
  • Davidson County, up .5 to 18.4
  • Franklin County, up .6 to 20.1
  • Haywood County, up .5 to 17.5
  • Henderson County, up .5 to 21.2
  • Humboldt City, up .8 to 17.4
  • Maryville City, up .5 to 22.1
  • Williamson County, up .6 to 24.1

Tennessee set aside up to $2.5 million to pay for its 2017 Retake Day, and Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to fund the initiative in the upcoming year as well. The state already pays for the first ACT testing day statewide, which it’s done since 2009.

Correction: January 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that, while the state set aside $2.5 million for its ACT retake initiative, it spent only $2 million on the program this fiscal year.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.