Numbers game

Colorado is about to release a torrent of test results. Here are four storylines worth watching.

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

The state education department is scheduled Thursday to publicly release a mammoth amount of data detailing how Colorado students performed on last spring’s standardized tests.

We’ll get to dive into state, district and school results from English, math, science and social studies tests, the PSAT and SAT, and student academic growth, which tracks how much students learn each year compared to their academic peers.

The data — beloved or loathed depending on which educator you ask — is supposed to gauge how well students grasp the state’s academic standards that are designed to prepare them for either college or a career.

The state also uses the results, along with other factors such as graduation rates, to issue quality ratings for schools and districts. And in some instances, teachers are rated based on the data.

Here is background and some storylines to keep in mind in advance of the release:

First a reminder of where we stand:

Three years ago, the state made a monumental shift in its testing system. Colorado was one of about a dozen states to drop paper-and-pencil standardized tests in favor of a new multi-state computer-based test.

The PARCC tests would measure critical thinking, a major component of the state’s new academic standards, which devalued rote memorization.

Prior to the first release, school officials in Colorado and across the nation warned that test scores would likely be low considering the newness of the academic standards and tests.

Indeed, they were.

In 2015, only 43 percent of fourth graders met the state’s expectations on the English test. Math was worse: Only 37 percent of third graders were able to complete math equations at grade level.

In 2016, the state saw a slight uptick in scores, mirroring national trends.

However, state officials worried about how far behind students with learning disabilities were compared to their peers.

Here’s a look at the changes in test scores in English and math:

English

Math

 

With three years of data from PARCC, we can — finally — talk about trends. But what are we going to learn that we didn’t already know?

For the last two years, state and school district officials have warned about two things: First, don’t compare the results of PARCC to that of previous standardized tests. Second, they said we needed three years of data to pinpoint trends in student performance.

Why three years?

Derek Briggs, a professor at School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also sits on the technical advisory board for PARCC, said one reason why we might need three years of data is because of exaggerated bumps sometimes found in the second year of a new standardized test.

“One explanation for this sort of trend was that it would take teachers/schools a year to figure out the emphasis on the new assessment, so in the first year, the alignment between teaching and instruction isn’t optimal, so student performance in the first year is depressed,” he said in an email. “Then in the second year, it snaps back up once instruction and assessment are better aligned.”

Briggs added that so far, no state that updated its test to align to the Common Core State Standards like Colorado did had a second year bump.

So, now we have three years of data: What can we say?

It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about state trends — especially in a local control state where so many decisions about what students learn is made at the school and district level.

But Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Delaware-based Center for Assessment, said that at the three-year mark, school officials and parents alike can start to better understand what’s working or not at individual schools.

“It can serve as a gut check about a school’s general performance over time,” D’Brot said. “If you have three points that are moving upward or constantly moving downward, we can quickly create a story around that.”

It’s more difficult to draw conclusions if a school’s results are less consistent, he said.

And there are some state-level benefits.

“This trend data can help the state evaluate their own efforts to work with districts and schools,” he said. This is especially valuable when school leaders use a variety of data points including patterns of student growth.

The state is suppressing data in an effort to “protect student privacy.” How much will be redacted?

Colorado was once considered one of the most education data-friendly states. But beginning with the first release of PARCC data in 2015, the state began blacking out more school-level data than it had in the past.

The effects of the new so-called “suppression rules” were even more pronounced in the state’s 2016 release. The state shielded roughly 4,000 data points that year, frustrating education reform advocates who say this data helps parents make better decisions about schools.

Stay tuned to see what we won’t learn about school performance due to these rules after Thursday’s release.

After two years of delayed and drawn-out data releases, the state is giving us everything on time and all at once. But the promise of getting data back quicker is still elusive.

In 2015 and 2016, testing data dribbled out of the state education department over several months — state-level results first, then school level, then student growth data. This was a departure from a decades-long routine of releasing test score data in August.

On Thursday, the state will release almost everything all at once. (District and school performance data disaggregated by different student groups is expected within a month.) This is a major victory for the state and the makers of PARCC because one of the longest-running criticisms of the test was how long it took to get data back to schools.

Schools received their results in June, the earliest data has gotten back to the schools since the state switched to PARCC.

But the timeline still falls short of one of the promises of new tests and the demands of the State Board of Education, which going forward wants data back to schools within 30 days.

Is the state’s gradual move away from PARCC at the high school level working to curb the opt out movement?

In 2015, Colorado became one of the nation’s epicenters for the testing opt out movement. Thousands of high schoolers, backed by their parents, refused to take the PARCC exams, claiming they served no educational purpose.

In some cases, entire schools sat empty during the state’s testing window.

In response, lawmakers eliminated some high school tests and changed others. In 2016, more high school sophomores took the state’s tests than the year before. Policymakers hope additional changes at the ninth grade level, set to take effect next spring, will move even more families back to the state’s testing system.

Will the trend continue? We’ll find out on Thursday.

And finally, here’s a roundup of previous coverage you might find helpful:

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.