test swap

Goodbye ACT, hello SAT: a significant change for Colorado high schoolers

PHOTO: Flickr/Creative Commons

Colorado high school juniors will be required to take the SAT college-entrance exam instead of the ACT starting this spring, a significant change that grew out of a competitive bidding process required by hard-fought testing reform legislation.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that a selection committee chose The College Board, makers of the SAT, over the ACT testing company, which has been testing juniors in Colorado since 2001.

High school sophomores, meanwhile, will begin taking the PSAT. Under the compromise testing legislation, sophomores and juniors no longer will take PARCC English and math tests, which debuted last spring and proved especially unpopular with high school students.

“We realize this is a big shift for students and that this decision is coming later in the school year than any of us would like,” Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp said in a statement. “We are committed to exploring options for flexibility that make sense for this year’s juniors who need to use this spring’s exam for their college applications.”

Asp did not offer any specifics about what that flexibility might look like.

State officials said the selection committee chose the PSAT in part because it aligns with the high school Common Core English language arts and math standards, which Colorado adopted. The state said the committee also found “the College Board’s reporting system more useful to students, as it connects students to resources and activities designed to help identify next steps for extra support or possible acceleration.”

The SAT and PSAT will be given each spring for the next five years, with the exact dates to be determined, the state said.

The decision to go with the College Board tests will become official at the end of the procurement process, which includes a waiting period of seven business days. The change does not require State Board of Education approval.

The contract will be negotiated after the official award, state officials say. An education department spokeswoman said the competing bids for 10th and 11th grade tests will be subject to public review after the procurement process.

The state wanted one vendor for both tests. By going that route, results on the 10th grade tests can be used to help teachers prepare students for tests the next year.

The SAT tests differ from PARCC and, notably, will take less time. For example, sophomores spent more than 11 hours on PARCC tests last spring, while the PSAT clocks in at just under three hours. The PARCC tests have been shortened somewhat for this spring.

PARCC tests include only language arts and math. The PSAT and SAT tests cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies and are meant to measure college and workforce readiness.

Since 2001, every Colorado junior has been required to take the ACT. About 55,000 students took the test last spring in the state’s public schools. The SAT has a much a lower profile in Colorado. About 6,500 students who graduated last spring took the test.

Bruce Messinger, superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District, said he was surprised by the selection. A number of superintendents pressed for sticking with the ACT, which students have traditionally valued and provide districts a common measurement over time, he said.

“With all the change that’s gone on with the PARCC assessments, and new literacy assessments … the ACT  was really the only longitudinal data we have had to go and look at over time,” Messinger said.  “I guess it’s a fresh start on all fronts now.”

Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County school district, said he, too, was taken aback by the decision given the state’s longstanding history with the ACT, and that the SAT is favored by colleges on the East and West coasts.

While Glass said he doesn’t yet know the committee’s rationale, he has concerns about preparing students for the new test on short notice and communicating with parents, among other things.

Asked what kind of flexibility he’d like the state to give, Glass said he hopes the state allows districts to choose whether to give the ACT or SAT this school year.

“The quality (of the tests offered by the two vendors) is not a huge question,” Glass said. “So if they are equivalent tests, then why would you make this seismic shift that is going to have all these ripple effects? It seems the juice is not worth the squeeze. It’s going to be a lot of work to make this transition and the outcomes are not going to be that radically different.”

One factor that may have swayed Colorado: the SAT has a reputation for being more reason-based and focused on critical thinking, while the ACT has a reputation for being more of a fact-recall test, Glass noted.

State officials say the selection committee that recommended The College Board included educators and administrators from urban, rural and suburban districts, and included content matter experts, assessment experts, special population professionals, guidance counselors and higher education professionals.

Read Chalkbeat’s previous coverage of the competition between the two testing giants here.

Capitol editor Todd Engdahl contributed information to this report.

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.”