Testing 2016

Testing giants vie to provide Colorado high school exams

The final piece of Colorado’s 2016 testing puzzle should fall in place by year’s end when state officials decide whether the ACT testing company or the College Board, creators of the SAT, will provide 10th and 11th grade exams.

The decision will carry big implications for the state’s 125,000 high school sophomores and juniors and for the teachers who will prepare students for the exams and oversee test taking.

If the state chooses ACT’s bid, sophomores likely will take the ACT Aspire test, already used by some other states, including neighboring Wyoming. The test offered by the College Board is the PSAT 10. Either exam would take less time for students to finish than the PARCC language arts and math tests that 10th graders took last spring.

Sophomores spent more than 11 hours on PARCC tests last spring. The estimated time to take the ACT 10th grade test is a little more than four hours, while the College Board’s offering clocks in at just under three hours. The PARCC tests have been shortened somewhat for next spring.

For juniors, ACT offers the familiar ACT college entrance test, while the College Board provides the SAT exam.

The coming changes make school districts nervous, given that they’ll have only a few months to ramp up for the new exams.

Why Colorado is planning new tests

The two exams are required by the testing overhaul law passed by legislators last spring.

Lawmakers wanted to reduce the amount of time consumed by testing, particularly in high school. Last spring, 9th, 10th and 11th grade students all had to take PARCC language arts and math tests, and juniors also took the ACT. And seniors were required to take science and social studies tests the previous fall.

The legislature retained traditional testing for 9th graders. But it eliminated 11th grade language arts and math exams, and ordered the 10th grade tests replaced with a college readiness test.

Lawmakers wanted to do more than cut testing time. The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on college readiness. PARCC tests include only language arts and math. The ACT and College Board tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies and are calibrated to measure college and workforce readiness.

The policy goal behind the changes was to use high school tests that are more focused than PARCC on gauging student readiness for college and the workforce in reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

The tests taken by sophomores and juniors are meant to be aligned. So, for instance, results on the 10th grade tests are designed to be predictive of results on the 11th grade exams, giving teachers information they can use to help students before they take tests as juniors. Because of the need for alignment, the state will choose one vendor to provide both tests.

Both companies have long history in Colorado

Learn more about the tests

Many people who’ve graduated from Colorado’s high schools remember the ACT. Every high school junior has had to take the test since 2001. About 55,000 students took the test last spring in the state’s public schools.

Even before the ACT became mandatory, it traditionally was the preferred test for students applying to Colorado colleges.

In contrast, the SAT has had a lower profile in Colorado. About 6,500 students who graduated last spring took the test.

Other College Board tests such as Advanced Placement are taken by some high school students, and some districts use other company tests.

Scores on the ACT test are used in the state accountability system as one factor to rate how well high schools are preparing students for college and careers. Overall, student ACT performance has been relatively flat for several years.

Annual scores on other tests like PARCC are also used in school ratings. In addition, the state rating system uses multiple years of test scores to track student academic growth over time.

So a change in the main set of language arts and math tests disrupts the collection of growth data until the new tests are given for at least two years. The state’s rating system is on hold this year because PARCC tests were new last spring.

But no growth data is calculated from multiple years of ACT tests, so switching 11th grade tests isn’t necessarily a problem.

“If SAT can predict college readiness as well as ACT, we don’t lose a lot” by switching, said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability and research officer for Aurora Public Schools. “It’s a new group of students every year.”

Change raises concerns for districts

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into giving tests, and some districts fear they’re going to have to scramble to get ready once the state announces which tests will be used.

“It really does matter which test,” Escarcega said. “If it’s ACT, the issue is minimized in terms of having to ramp up.”

If the College Board tests are chosen, teachers will need to be trained quickly, Escarcega said.

And Mya Martin-Glenn, the Aurora district’s assessment director, noted that juniors in many districts already have taken practice ACT tests this school year but won’t necessarily be as prepared for SATs.

When tests will be given and who pays

The Department of Education hasn’t yet decided when the tests will given next spring. The 11th grade test will be given on a single day, with one makeup date. The department expects to do the same thing with the 10th grade exam but won’t decide until later. CDE plans to offer the tests on paper, not online.

Those decisions will be made after a testing company is chosen. CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith said the department anticipates making  a recommendation to the state procurement director before the end of the year,” said CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith.

State procedures required the tests be put out to competitive bid, and the testing law requires the tests be rebid every five years.

The state has budgeted $1.8 million for the new 10th grade exam. The current ACT test for juniors costs about $2.1 million a year. An additional $432,000 has been budgeted to cover the costs of juniors who also want to take a writing exam next spring. The state will cover those costs.

Last spring’s testing law also requires the state to cover the costs of 11th grade writing exams for students who wish to take them.

The national picture

In decades past, the ACT and SAT tests were taken primarily by students using them to apply to college. But in recent years both companies have moved into the state test market.

Alabama, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming use ACT Aspire for 10th graders. Some states also use different versions of Aspire in lower grades. The College Board partners with a dozen states on various tests. And some states use both tests.

See which states use which tests in this list provided by the Education Commission of the States. ECS discusses testing trends in this paper.

Stay tuned

As a global robotics competition descends on Detroit, few local students are included — for now

PHOTO: Getty Images

More than 15,000 junior engineers from around the the world are descending on Detroit this week for an international robotics competition.

Local students, for the most part, aren’t among them. Just one city high school qualified to send a team, out of more than 400 high school teams in the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

That could change in coming years, if Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has the impact he’s hoping.

“Robotics coming to DPSCD high schools in the fall,” he wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. “New programming. Stay tuned!”

Vitti has promised a long list of new offerings to start this fall, when he begins his second full school year leading Detroit’s main school district. Dozens of schools have started robotics teams in the last year, and in February, the district announced a $112,000 grant from the state education department to pay for robotics materials and after-school coaches in more schools.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer this type of programming to every student districtwide,” Vitti said in a press release announcing the grant. “This commitment excites our parents and the business community which is yearning for future employees with STEM skills.”

For now, Cesar Chavez Academy High School — a charter school that the district does not operate — will alone represent Detroit high school students at the international competition, set to recur in the city annually until 2020.

The academy’s five-year-old team, the Az-Tech Eagles, has racked up sponsorships from local companies, including General Motors and Detroit Labs, according to the competition website. But it faces an uphill battle in this week’s contest.

While most teams that qualified for the championship competition did so by winning local contests, Cesar Chavez got in by winning a “District Engineering Inspiration Award” earlier this year.

That award, according to competition rules, “celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community.”

The district entered 53 teams from 39 schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, in qualifying competitions, according to a spokesperson. The only team from a district-run school in this week’s competition is the Mighty Lego Dolphins from Thurgood Marshall Elementary — one of the schools to introduce robotics this year.

About 40,000 people including students and their parents are expected for the competition, which starts Wednesday at Cobo Hall. A host of science- and technology-themed events have been planned throughout downtown including pop-up video arcades, live performances, and games.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.