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.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”