Let's add a test

High school students would face new civics test under bipartisan proposal

Photograph of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo.

Colorado students would be required to pass a civics test used by the federal government to graduate from high school under a new bill promoted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The measure, House Bill 16-148, would increase statewide testing just a year after lawmakers cut back on assessments, including Colorado’s current social studies test.

Prime sponsor Sen. Owen Hill said he’s been working on the idea for three years because “civics education has been left by the wayside” due to the education system’s focus on language arts and math.

The Colorado Springs Republican said he finally found the “right avenue” in a testing proposal being pushed nationwide by two related Arizona nonprofits, the Civics Education Initiative and the Joe Foss Institute. Eight states passed such laws in 2015.

The new bill would tap a non-traditional testing source – the civics portion of the exam the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gives to immigrants who want to become naturalized citizens.

“This is a simple solution,” said Hill, saying the tests are taken online and that districts and schools could administer the exams whenever they chose.

What’s the naturalization civics test look like? Take some sample exams. 

Students would take that test in 9th grade and have to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions in order to graduate. Students could keep taking the test through 12th grade until they passed.

The new exam would add to a longstanding state requirement that every student “satisfactorily complete” a civics class to graduate.

Disabled students wouldn’t have to take the test, and principals or superintendents could waive the requirement for students who meet all other graduation requirements and can show “extraordinary circumstances.” And test results would not be used for educator evaluation.

Hill, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “I certainly think there will be pushback” on the idea of increasing testing. “I certainly don’t expect a unanimous vote.”

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo
Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood is cautious about the bill. Kerr is a social studies teacher and the senior Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.

“I don’t think it’s the best policy for the legislature to mandate tests for graduation requirements,” he said. High school students “absolutely” should be able to correctly answer 60 questions on the naturalization test, he said, but that shouldn’t be tied to graduation.

The state constitution guarantees local control of curriculum, and Colorado school districts fiercely defend their independence. The State Board of Education last year set “graduation guidelines,” which have been received with a fair amount of grumbling.

Kerr also said he’s concerned that the naturalization test “is not based on Colorado state standards,” as are currently required statewide tests in language arts, math, science and social studies.

Chris Elnicki, social studies coordinator for the Cherry Creek Schools, also has questions about the bill. “There certainly is concern that the requirement of this exam for graduation will narrow instructional focus on test prep and shift the focus away from higher order thinking. … The current civics standards found within the Colorado Academic Standards in Social Studies are a better guide to educators hoping to inspire a lifelong commitment to civic responsibility and engagement within their students. Schools should avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures.”

But Marcia Neal, former chair of the State Board of Education, is enthusiastic about the bill.

“I would certainly be in support of this bill,” said Neal, a retired social studies teacher who has long advocated for greater emphasis on the subject. “The teaching of social studies in general is in decline.”

Colorado rolled out its social studies tests in 2014, and they were originally given to all students in grades 4, 7 and 12. The fall high school tests sparked widespread student boycotts in some districts. The exams assess a broader range of knowledge than just civics.

This spring those tests will be given only to some 4th and 7th graders. High school tests will resume next year. Last year some lawmakers wanted to eliminate social studies tests. But they were saved by a Kerr-engineered compromise under which the exams are given in only a third of schools each year.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs / File photo

Hill said he expects Senate Education to consider the bill in the next couple of weeks. He’s assembled a bipartisan group of 13 sponsors, seven in the Senate and six in the House. But only two GOP members of the nine-member Senate Education Committee are signed on. Three members of the 11-member House Education Committee are sponsoring the bill, two Republicans and one Democrat.

Last year’s testing reform law passed by wide margins in both houses – only 13 of 100 lawmakers voted no. But some lawmakers think it didn’t go far enough.

The only 2016 proposal to reduce testing is Senate Bill 16-005, which would eliminates 9th grade language arts and math tests. It’s backed primarily by three Republicans and one Democrat on Senate Education and is not expected to pass.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

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.”