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.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.