A hard day

Testing task force struggles, stumbles as deadline looms

Testing task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits (right) filled several big sheets of paper Monday trying to keep up with the group's deliberations.

The state’s Standards and Assessments Task Force, which has been meeting since July, finally got down to voting on tentative recommendations Monday. The process was messy, and the results were mostly inconclusive.

Straw votes taken over nearly eight hours by the 15-member advisory group generally supported reducing the amount of state-required testing in high school, but the members couldn’t reach agreement on a long list of other issues, including reducing the overall amount of testing, what to do about the new social studies tests and about readiness and literacy evaluations for young students.

And those recommendations the group did agree to “are not set in stone,” said chair Dan Snowberger.

As the daylong session dragged to its end, he said, “We are going to need much more time to come to agreement on recommendations.” Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango School District.

The group had a hard time getting to those preliminary decisions, having to redo votes on several issues and consuming time as members tried to explain the nuances of why they voted the way they did.

The discussion was civil and polite but clearly indicated the philosophical divisions among task force members, particularly between representatives of education reform groups on one side and parent activists and district administrators on the other.

The divisions on the task force likely prefigure disagreements during the 2015 legislative session, where testing is expected to be a top education issue. Some lawmakers say they are waiting to see what the task force proposes. But the task force’s inability so far to speak with one voice could well diminish its influence on Capitol deliberations.

Lawmakers already are chomping at the bit on testing; at least half a dozen legislators reportedly have reserved bill titles on the issue.

The tentative recommendations

The testing task force's work product.
The testing task force’s work product.

The task force did reach preliminary agreement on some testing issues, including:

  • Elimination of all state-required testing in the senior year of high school
  • Replacing the high school science exam with a beefed-up “college entrance exam” (like the ACT, but not necessarily that test)
  • Continue giving state science tests in the fifth and eighth grades
  • Elimination of language arts and math tests in the 11th grade and limiting those tests to the 10th grade
  • A majority of the group leaned toward allowing districts and schools to continue giving language arts and math tests in the ninth and 11th grades as a local option

Some members of the group appeared to support – kind of by default and perhaps temporarily – continued language arts and math tests in third through eighth grades.

In short, the group for now is leaning toward reducing state testing to what’s known as “the federal minimum,” the testing sequence that’s currently required by the federal government.

Members differed on what those straw votes meant.

“From grades three through eight we’ve affirmed the status quo. … We spent today essentially affirming the status quo. In all our discussions we haven’t reduced anything,” said panel member John Creighton, who serves on the St. Vrain school board.

“We have made progress. … Let’s not kick ourselves too hard just yet,” responded Jay Cerney of Cherry Creek Academy charter school in Englewood.

A tortured process

The discussion went slowly for a number of reasons, including:

  • Individual member suggestions for broad policy statements, intended to gain agreement from the group, frequently were greeted with “Yes, but” responses from other members, leading to prolonged discussions.
  • Even after straw votes, members took time to qualify and explain their votes, and several votes had to be repeated.
  • Task force facilitator Laura Lefkowits had to repeatedly call for second votes after members dropped their hands too quickly for her to count them.
  • The group wandered from topic to topic, changing subjects when they couldn’t reach agreement.

Comments by Snowberger, Lefkowits and others through the day illustrate the slow pace of discussion.

  • “So where are we?” – Snowberger at about 11:30 a.m.
  • “Can we vote on this?” – Snowberger shortly after noon
  • “We’ve cut very little in the way of testing so far.” – Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, at about 2 p.m.
  • “So where are we? – Snowberger a short time later
  • “This isn’t much of a recommendation if we’re split in half.” – Lefkowits as 2:30 p.m. neared.
  • “Let’s try to finish one thing before we move to another.” – Lefkowits at about 2:45 p.m.
  • “We need to talk about how long we are going to stay tonight. … We’ve spent a lot of time on things that have not moved.” – Lefkowits as the original adjournment time of 3:30 p.m. approached.
  • “We are a long ways away.” – Snowberger shortly after 3 p.m.

The meeting broke up shortly after 5 p.m.

What’s next

A rump group of the task force was planning to meet Tuesday to see if it could come up with more specific proposals for the full group to discuss later.

Snowberger also is trying to organize small groups of members to discuss issues before the next full meeting on Jan. 9. “If we wait until the 9th to do this again we’re going to be very disappointed,” he said.

The Jan. 9 meeting wasn’t scheduled originally, but the group agreed to it Monday. The panel also is scheduled to meet Jan. 12.

Snowberger’s comments also indicated he’s backing away from the goal of consensus the task force had at the start. “We’re going to have to start putting stakes in the ground, and if 10 of us agree, then report that 10 of us agree.”

Interest groups make their pitches

The task force’s day started with presentations by three interest groups with vocal positions on testing. Task force members split up for simultaneous presentations by the three groups, then discussed the information as a full group.

A parent group known as the Denver Alliance for Public Education presented the results of an online survey it conducted that found strong respondent opposition to the current testing system. The group has complained that a survey done for the task force by the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates didn’t sample parent opinion.

Representatives of the Colorado Education Association presented a teacher survey that showed respondents split on the Common Core State Standards and skeptical of the value of current assessments.

Members of the Social Studies Policy Group have been following the task force closely and are lobbying to avoid changes in or reduction of the state’s new social studies tests.

Learn more about the groups’ positions in these documents:

You can see the final APA report here and read recent public comments submitted to the task force here.

The task force was created by the 2014 legislature as a political compromise because lawmakers weren’t ready tackle more substantive changes to the testing system. As is typical with such study commissions, the task force membership was designed to include representatives of various education interest groups.

double take

Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Students work on assignments at Indianapolis Public Schools Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Imagine a scenario where Indiana schools get not just one A-F grade each year, but two.

One grade would determine whether a school can be taken over by the state. The other would comply with federal law asking states to track student test progress and how federal aid is spent. Both would count, but each would reflect different measures of achievement and bring different consequences.

This could be Indiana’s future if a state board-approved plan moves ahead at the same time the state is working on a conflicting plan to comply with a new federal law.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it probably would be, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Originally, A-F grades were intended to be an easy way for parents and community members to understand how their school is doing.

“It’s extremely confusing to have multiple accountability systems with multiple consequences,” McCormick told board members last week. “All along our message has been to get as much alignment as we can.”

Indiana would not be the first state to consider dual accountability systems — Colorado operated separate systems for years under No Child Left Behind and is now doing so again. Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also had two models in years past. But this move would be a big departure from Indiana’s efforts over the past several years to simplify accountability, and education officials warn it could create more problems than it would solve.

Dale Chu, an education consultant who previously worked in Indiana under state Superintendent Tony Bennett, said it’s actually not common for states to have multiple systems, and doing so for political reasons, rather than what helps students and families, is concerning.

“We all know how confusing accountability systems can be when you just have one,” Chu said. “To create a bifurcated system, I don’t see how you gain additional clarity … I would certainly hope that if that’s the direction the state is going to move in, they are very thoughtful and intentional about it.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan to comply with a new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. McCormick’s education department has been working to align the federal system with Indiana’s grading system, and is struggling to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, most notably in the area of graduation requirements and diplomas.

At the same time the Indiana State Board of Education is negotiating this alignment, it is also revamping the A-F grade system.

A new grading proposal approved by the state board last week would put more emphasis on student test scores than the A-F system that now unifies state and federal requirements. Those new rules would include extra categories for grading schools, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan.

While that proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

Officials were already expecting to issue two sets of A-F grades to schools in 2018 — one state grade, and one federal — as the state continued to work all of Indiana’s unresolved education issues into the new federal plan. Figuring out how to ensure state graduation rates don’t plummet because of other federal rule changes dictating  which diplomas count and incorporating the new high school graduation requirements, for example, will take time — and legislation — to fix.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

But ultimately, officials said, if some of the state board-approved changes make it into final policy, and Indiana’s federal plan doesn’t change to accommodate it, the state and federal accountability systems could remain at odds with each other — meaning schools would continue to get two grades after 2018.

The original intent was to have all Indiana’s state grading system line up with federal requirements before the plan was sent to federal officials in September. Then, once the federal government gave feedback, the state A-F revamp could continue.

But just this past fall, after the federal plan had been submitted, some members of the state board began adding in additional measures, some of which reflect their personal interests in how schools should be rated.

Those measures were added after board members had multiple chances to discuss the federal plan with the education department, conversations that were held in an attempt to ward off such changes this late in the game. Yet even last week at the state board’s monthly meeting, where the new grading changes were approved, some board members didn’t seem to realize until after the vote that the A-F systems would not match up.

David Freitas, a state board member, said he didn’t see the conflicting A-F grade rules as a problem. The board can make Indiana’s state A-F system whatever it wants, he said, and there will be plenty of time to iron out specifics as the rulemaking process unfolds over the next several months.

“We’re not banned from having two different systems,” Freitas said. “But we need to consider the implications and consequences of that.”

Read more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” Asmus said. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, Asmus said. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.