Getting to yes

Experts handicap Colorado’s odds on assessment, accountability changes

Colorado should be cautiously optimistic about having key changes in its testing system approved by the U.S. Department of Education, according to education policy experts surveyed by Chalkbeat Colorado.

The testing law passed by the 2015 legislature contains several changes to the state’s assessment and accountability system, including a shift in high school standardized testing and a one-year timeout in the rating system for districts and schools.

Such changes require signoff by the U.S. Department of Education as part of Colorado’s overall ESEA Flexibility Request, a state-federal agreement that allows some state practices to vary from those required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as long as Colorado meets the overall goals of that federal law.

The state’s current flexibility agreement is expiring, and state and federal officials are negotiating a new one. Theoretically, federal rejection of Colorado proposals could threaten the state’s overall flexibility plan or could require the legislature to go back to the drawing board on testing in 2016.

“The department is going to be open to listening,” said Michelle Exstrom, a program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But, “It’s hard to know what the department will do,” cautions Kirsten Carr, director of accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group that represents the nation’s education commissioners.

Since the new state testing law (House Bill 15-1323) passed in May, officials at the Colorado Department of Education have been discussing those changes with their Washington counterparts, trying to get a sense of what will pass muster.

The department will prepare amendment language based on those discussions and present those amendments to the State Board of Education for approval in August, according to Alyssa Pearson, CDE interim associate commissioner of accountability, performance and support.

In an effort to handicap Colorado’s chances, Chalkbeat interviewed several education policy experts around the nation. While cautioning that it’s hard to predict what the federal department will decide, all believe the issues involved are open to negotiation. Here’s what they had to say on the key changes in state testing law.

High school testing

What’s proposed – Federal law requires language arts and math tests be given once in high school, which has been interpreted as during 10th, 11th or 12th grade. Colorado long has given the tests in ninth grade, which isn’t required, and in 10th grade as well. The new law proposes to continue 9th grade testing but to switch to a college and career readiness test like the Accuplacer in 10th grade.

“I don’t think the year of the test would be a sticking point,” said Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy and advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that focuses on high school improvement.

But, Lovell said, Colorado will need to demonstrate that new 10th grade tests are properly aligned with state academic standards.

Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, agrees that the U.S. DOE will want to know the details of how new tests align with standards and college admissions.

He said “ninth grade tests are potentially a problem.” Bellwether is a Massachusetts-based consulting group.

“I think there are policy arguments Colorado could make here,” said Lee Posey, education committee director in NCSL’s Washington office. “Those are the kind of things the [federal] department might look at.”

Exstrom, who works in NCSL’s Denver headquarters, said, “I think that will be a point where they [state officials] are really going to be negotiating with the Department of Education. She added that “states [like Colorado] that are showing good-faith efforts” on school improvement might be able to make the case for such a testing change.

While optimistic about Colorado’s chances, Lovell did say, “From a policy point of view I find it interesting that the tests would given at the beginning of high school,” when students have just begun their academic careers at that level.

The accountability timeout

What’s proposed – The coming school year will serve as a time-out for accreditation ratings. No new ratings will be announced this autumn, meaning schools and districts will retain the ratings they were assigned at the end of 2014. The rating system won’t full kick back into operation until the 2017-18 school year.

The experts don’t expect Colorado will have a problem on this issue, given previous statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the need for a time out after states switch tests, which Colorado did last spring.

“The department has shown openness to that in the past,” Exstrom said. “A number of states are in similar situations,” said Lovell. “It’s a logical request.”

Carr and Aldeman agreed, although Aldeman said the department will want assurances that improvement efforts at the lowest-performing schools will continue during the time-out year.

Other issues

Another element of the testing law allows pilot programs through which districts and groups of districts can try out new ways of testing students and holding schools accountable. The goal is that two programs will be chosen from the first group of pilots, and that one of those might eventually become the new state testing and accountability system. This plan will require multiple levels of federal approval.

A limited pilot program is underway in New Hampshire, and “A number of states have been looking” to that state, Exstrom said.

If a program is closely modeled on New Hampshire, and if alternative tests measure the same skills as statewide assessments, “The U.S. Department of Education would be open to that,” she said.

“This certainly will be an important part of negotiations,” said Lovell. “Given the department’s work with New Hampshire, I think there’s a pretty decent chance that Colorado and the department can work something out so that the pilot could be part of the plan.”

Aldeman noted that the department set “a pretty high bar” for New Hampshire and that “Colorado would have to meet a similarly high bar.”

Colorado also is proposing changes in testing of some English language learners and not using English language arts scores of ELL students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than two years as part of school and district accountability calculations.

“This is an area a number of states are exploring,” Exstrom said. “I don’t have a good sense of what their reaction will be,” said added, referring to federal officials.

(See this Chalkbeat story to learn more about these issues and about additional parts of the testing law that don’t require federal sign-off.)

Will Colorado get points for good behavior?

Some of the experts cited Colorado’s record on education reform as a point in its favor.

“Colorado has been a leader,” said Carr, adding that the department may lean toward proposals from states that are being “thoughtful” about their accountability systems.

“I think there’s room aroind the edges for a state that is really trying to make a good faith effort,” said Exstrom. “The department is going to open to listening.”

Congress may change the rules

The flexibility agreements held by Colorado and many other states are commonly called “waivers” because they are DOE-approved exemptions from some provisions of the ESEA.

The department started issuing waivers in 2011 because of congressional failure to update ESEA. But the issue is back on the front burner in Congress, where both the House and Senate are debating bills this week.

Increased flexibility for states is part of the measures before Congress, so the landscape could change significantly if lawmakers come to agreement.

“A lot of these questions could be answered by passage of the ESEA reauthorization,” Lovell said. “There’s a decent likelihood of that happening,” he added. “It may not be this calendar year, but there’s a decent possibility of it happening early into next year. … It has the best chance of passing that it has in a really long time.”

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

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,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “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, said Asmus. 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.