wait a minute

Colorado will stick with the ACT one more year before SAT switch

The rival bids (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

The time and money Colorado high school juniors have invested in ACT test preparation will not be for naught: The state is sticking with the time-honored college preparation exam this spring before switching to the rival SAT next year.

Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp announced the one-year delay Monday and provided more details about the process and decision-making behind the state’s planned move to the SAT, which a selection committee found was more in harmony with the state’s academic standards.

The delay is welcome news to district superintendents, educators, students and others upset at the prospect of having to prepare for an entirely new test on such short notice.

The announcement does not reverse the state’s shift to the SAT; that would require legislative action. Instead, it means that 11th graders will take the ACT this spring, while 10th graders will take the PSAT in preparation for the SAT next year. The state is doing away with PARCC English and math tests for 10th and 11th graders that only debuted last spring.

Asp said at a news conference that a 15-member selection committee charged with making the decision unanimously chose 10th and 11th grade tests offered by The College Board, makers of the SAT, over a bid from the ACT. The ACT has been given to Colorado 11th graders since 2001.

Asp said the committee — which included superintendents, district assessment coordinators, content specialists and others — determined that the PSAT and SAT are better measures of the state’s academic standards than the ACT and the ACT Aspire. He emphasized that the committee was far larger than the three or four people that typically would be involved.

Selection committee members | Jan DeLay, Superintendent of the Valley school district | Linda Reed, superintendent of Archuleta County school district | Kermit Snyder, superintendent of Rocky Ford school district | Johan van Nieuwenhuizen, Weld school district | Carol Eaton, executive director of assessment and research, Jefferson County School District | Julie Knowles, director of special programs at Garfield school district | Margaret Ruckstuhl, research, data and accountability officer, Harrison School District | Frances Woolery-James, secondary special education director, Cherry Creek School District | Patrick Kilcullen, priority programs coordinator, St. Vrain Valley School District | Cathy Martin, director of mathematics curriculum and instruction, Denver Public Schools | Kristina Smith, secondary English language arts specialist instructional support team, Mesa school district | Timalyn O’Neill, associate director of marketing and communications, Colorado State University Office of Admissions | Cory Notestine, counseling and postsecondary coordinator, Colorado Springs School District 11 | Sandi Brown, head of school, Colorado Early Colleges | Will Morton, director of assessment administration, Colorado Department of Education

“I believe in the process,” Asp said in an interview. “I think it was done in good faith. I think the (selection committee members) were very deliberative and thought about it very carefully and ended up in a place of unanimous support that the assessments, in their minds — and they know a lot more about it than the rest of us — are the best assessments in the long run.”

Cost also was a factor, but not a major one, he said. That said, the difference was significant: The College Board’s bid to provide the tests over the next five years was $14.8 million compared to the ACT’s $23 million bid, officials said. Most of the cost difference came in the 10th grade test administration.

Points for equity

Selection committee member Julie Knowles, director of assessment and special programs for the Garfield School District in Rifle, said Monday she was swayed by the SAT’s alignment to the state’s academic standards and by free resources promised to students.

Those include personalized online test practice through Khan Academy, an app that feeds students SAT “questions of the day” and a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club that connects low-income students with those resources and others.

Knowles said those pieces — which ACT did not match — demonstrated a commitment to equity, serving all students and closing achievement gaps separating students based on their family income.

Joyce Zurkowski, the education department’s head of assessments, sounded a similar theme.

“College Board really presented a very convincing argument they are committed to equity issues and making sure all kids have access to preparation and activities and tools – not just kids who can afford to pay additional funds for that,” she said.

Colorado superintendents and others have mourned the loss of yet more longitudinal test data during a stretch when the state has adopted so many new assessments. Knowles said the committee extensively discussed the consequences of switching tests, and empathized with the concern about losing that data.

“High school is not the only grade level to lose its longitudinal data,” she said. “Third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade teachers have lost it, and so forth and so on. We have to remember why they lost it. We are trying to move to these new standards, and our assessments need to reflect these standards. High school is the final piece of the puzzle. If we don’t match the high school assessments to what is going on at the elementary level, we will have a big misalignment and do kids a disservice.”

Colorado assessment chief Joyce Zurkowski and interim superintendent Elliott Asp speak to reporters Monday (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado)
Colorado assessment chief Joyce Zurkowski and interim superintendent Elliott Asp speak to reporters Monday (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado)

Asp said education department officials have talked with both testing vendors and measurement experts about how to link scores from the competing tests to allow for measuring changes in student performance over time.

As part of sweeping testing reform legislation last spring, Colorado lawmakers required a competitive process for state tests given to 10th and 11th graders, setting up a high-stakes battle between two testing giants vying for the state testing market.

Any Colorado student remains free to take either the SAT or ACT. But the state will pay for only one of them, and the SAT eventually will become part of the system holding schools and districts accountable for student performance. Part of the rationale in making the ACT a statewide test more than 15 years ago was to get more students thinking about college.

A new SAT

The SAT is entirely new this spring, meant to better line up with the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado adopted. State officials and those more closely involved with the selection process credited the new SAT for asking students to read passages, interpret them and cite evidence — a critical piece of state standards.

Steve Lash, the longtime head of the honors program at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 school district, served on a panel of teachers who compared SAT and ACT questions to the standards, then reported its findings to the selection committee. Going in, Lash said he thought “we were going to justify our use of the ACT. I was surprised as anyone by the outcome.”

“We were struck with just how really different the tests are nowadays,” Lash said. “The SAT is superior now, especially on reading.”

The redesigned SAT puts much more of a premium on critical thinking, he said. Lash added that his group felt neither set of tests did an adequate job measuring writing skills.

Harry Bull, superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, said districts need time to judge the new-look SAT. He said his “angst and anxiety” is not about the tests but about the decision-making process and how the move was announced.

State officials on Dec. 23 announced the decision to switch to the SAT starting this spring, and only hinted vaguely at working toward “flexibility” for this year’s junior class. Then on Jan. 4, the state announced it was working on letting students take the ACT again this year. Noting the uncertainty students faced, Bull called the approach “not very thoughtful.”

State officials say they recognized the challenges facing this year’s 11th graders from the outset, but had to follow state procedures and strike a deal with the two testing giants.

Bull was among a group of about 120 district superintendents who signed a letter to the State Board of Education last week raising questions about the process and decision. The letter suggested school districts were not consulted before a request for proposal was opened to interested testing providers, raising the possibility that procurement rules may not have been followed. Asp said officials followed proper procedure, talking to superintendents and others before the request went out.

ACT: no need for ‘knee-jerk’ change

Cyndie Schmeiser, The College Board’s chief of assessment, said in a statement that the test provider supports delaying the SAT administration another year, saying it is in the “best interest of students and educators.”

Paul Weeks, ACT senior vice president for client relations, said the testing firm was happy to continue giving the ACT in Colorado this spring, which he called an “unexpected ask.” But Weeks expressed disappointment Monday in the state’s decision to change to the SAT. He said ACT is confident in its assessments and continually improves them without resorting to “radical change.”

“We are not going to do anything rash,” Weeks said when asked about the ACT losing not just Colorado’s business but two other states’ in recent months. “We certainly are not going to engage in any knee-jerk change. When research and evidence is driving what you do, you have to be true to that.”

Both the ACT and SAT are accepted at all Colorado colleges and universities.

Click here to read a previous Chalkbeat story about the competition between the ACT and SAT in Colorado.

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”