Testing backlash

Tens of thousands of Colorado students opted out of PARCC tests last spring, new data shows

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

More than 65,000 Colorado students were held out of last spring’s PARCC tests by their parents, according to newly released data that for the first time documents the strength of the so-called opt-out movement in the state.

Roughly 1 in 10 Colorado students skipped the math and English assessments as a result of parent refusals.

Test-taking rates were high with young students, began to sink in higher grades and plummeted among high schoolers, many of whom saw little value in sitting for yet more standardized tests as they prepared for the next chapters in their lives.

While test participation by elementary school students exceeded 95 percent, student opt-out rates reached 31 percent on 11th grade math tests and 25 percent on all 10th grade math scores.

Across all grade levels and in both English and math, white students were far more likely than their black and Latino classmates to miss the tests as a result of parental refusals.

At a press briefing Thursday, interim education commissioner Elliot Asp acknowledged a concern about how representative the scores are in higher grades that saw large number of parental refusals, most likely in affluent areas.

Colorado was portrayed as one of the epicenters of the opt-out movement last spring, but until now no firm numbers were available about the scope of the phenomenon.

Anti-PARCC sentiment was fueled by protests the previous fall of state science and social studies tests that saw mass refusals from students in mostly affluent, high-performing suburban school districts.

Data Center | Search our 2015 PARCC opt-out database here.

More granular detail about opt-outs in Colorado will become available Dec. 11, when state officials are expected to release test results and participation rates of individual districts and schools.

Only the state-level picture was available in Thursday’s release, which showed most Colorado students well short of where they need to be in mastering English and math academic standards.

The tens of thousands of opt-outs all but certainly drove down Colorado’s numbers, although to what extent is not known.

In all, 65,858 students in grades 3 through 11 missed PARCC English tests as a result of parental refusals, state data shows. The total was 47,852 students in grade 3 through 10 in the math exams. Presumably most parents who refused to allow their children to take PARCC did so for both tests. The refusal rates for both subjects closely mirrored each other.

Thousands more Colorado students missed the exams, without their parents or guardians officially opting them out. Those students could have been absent for other reasons — such as illness — or may have skipped out of protest without saying so.

The total participation rate was 82 percent for the English tests in all grades, and 85 percent for the math tests.

Ilana Spiegel, a Cherry Creek School District parent who served on a state task force that recommended reforms to state testing, said the high number of opt-outs seriously called into question the validity of the PARCC scores.

The movement to skip the tests includes a number of motivations, she said, including people upset with standardized testing in general, the PARCC tests in particular, or using the tests to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable.

“I think you will continue to see more (opt-outs) as people say they don’t want this to be the new normal,” Spiegel said.

Testing reduction and opting out were hot topics during the 2015 legislative session. An assessment bill was passed – among other changes seniors won’t be tested this fall – but a measure to codify parent opt-out rights died in a House committee.

Test participation rates are important because the U.S. Department of Education requires 95 percent test participation. In Colorado, schools and districts can see their accreditation ratings downgraded if they fail to meet that benchmark on two or more tests.

The state board, however, voted earlier this year not to penalize districts that don’t meet participation requirements this year — an issues central to the state’s request for flexibility from the No Child Left Behind federal education law.

A Chalkbeat Colorado canvassing of the state’s 20 largest districts last summer found only five that provided responses tested enough students on PARCC to meet the 95 percent bar.

The following graphic documents opt-out rates from English language arts tests …

PARCC opt out rates by grade and race

 

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.