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.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.