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.”

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

listening tour

Estos padres quieren eliminar los obstáculos para hispanohablantes en las escuelas de Detroit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Un aguacero no pudo detener estas madres el martes. Asistieron una discusión sobre las escuelas en Detroit.

To read this story in English, click here.

Si te parece difícil navegar el sistema escolar de Detroit, imagínate como es cuando nadie habla tu idioma.

Una discusión el martes sobre los obstáculos que enfrentan los estudiantes que hablan español en Detroit dejó en claro que sus padres también se encuentran problemas parecidos.

Los padres que se presentaron en el edificio de Brilliant Detroit quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer y hablar en inglés, pero afirmaron que es mucho más difícil hacerlo cuando no se pueden comunicar con las escuelas.

“Uno siente que no tiene valor,” dijo Gloria Vera, hablando de sus interacciones con maestros angloparlantes. “Te sientes que tienes menos oportunidades para hacer preguntas. Yo por ejemplo me da miedo.”

Varias madres confesaron inquietudes sobre los efectos de la ley de lectura de Michigan, que podrá retrasar a estudiantes del tercer grado si su nivel de lectura no es suficientemente alto para el año que viene. Según una investigadora, un 70 por ciento de estudiantes que hablan español en Michigan podrán ser retrasados.

Una madre dijo que quiere apoyar a su hija mientras aprende a leer, pero se preocupaba que su propio nivel de inglés estaba demasiado bajo.

Otra, Delia Barba, sospecha que su hija tiene una discapacidad de aprendizaje, pero afirma que su escuela en el suroeste de Detroit, un barrio mayormente hispanohablante, todavía no la ha examinado.

Barba — como casi todos las madres que asistieron el evento — dijo que las escuelas deben contratar más empleados bilingües.

“No sabemos con quién hablar,” Barba dijo. “No hablan español.”

Chalkbeat, un periódico en linea que se enfoca en las escuelas de Detroit, está recorriendo la ciudad, preguntándoles a padres cuáles asuntos debemos investigar. Esta vez, Chalkbeat fue acompañado por organizaciones centradas en el barrio “Southwest.” Juntos, iniciamos una discusión con docenas de padres, mayormente madres hispanohablantes. Vinieron a la sede de Brilliant Detroit por la mañana, a pesar de un aguacero.

Algunas de las presentes ya habían colaborado con organizaciones locales como Congress of Communities y el Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation para insistir que los líderes del distrito de Detroit expanden acceso para familias que hablan español. Apuntaron que sus preguntas fueron ignorados por administraciones pasadas.

“Los residentes de la comunidad se sienten frustrados en 2018, porque han expresado la necesidad de acceso al idioma en repetidas ocasiones a lo largo de los años y una resolución es continuamente ignorada,” dijo Elizabeth Rojas, una organizadora que también es una madre del distrito. “Sabemos que los estudiantes se van de nuestra ciudad para asistir a los distritos escolares en los suburbios. Si fortalecemos nuestros servicios de idiomas, estamos seguros de que muchas más familias regresarán al distrito.”

En una reunión el mes pasado, el superintendente de escuelas Nikolai Vitti señaló que iba a establecer un “hotline” – linea telefónica – en español y que cada escuela con estudiantes que hablan español iba a contratar a un empleado hispanohablante en la oficina central, entre otras promesas.

Al recibir los resultados de una encuesta en el barrio, los padres ahora se están enfocando en la pregunta de seguridad en las escuelas. Esperan que las escuelas contratarán a más policías bilingües, y que padres que no tienen papeles serán permitidos entrar en las escuelas con una tarjeta de identificación alternativa, por ejemplo un pasaporte mexicano o un ID proporcionado por el mismo distrito.

El martes, los padres reportaron que también hay una falta de servicios bilingües en las escuelas “charter” en el suroeste de Detroit. Angelina Romero, quien llegó con su familia de México en los últimos años, se preocupaba que su hijo del primer grado no está aprendiendo inglés en una escuela “charter,” y que tenía dificultades en comunicarse con su maestra.

“Ojalá que las familias que asistieron este evento se dan cuenta que hay padres en otras escuelas y en otras partes de la ciudad que también quieren más servicios bilingües,” dijo Jametta Lilly, directora del Detroit Parent Network, uno de los anfitriones del evento.

Para Gloria Vera, fue aun más difícil navegar el sistema de educación especializada por la presencia de una barrera lingüística. Su hija recibió un diagnosis de autismo, pero cuando se presentó a la escuela le dijeron que no había suficiente espacio.

“Me dijeron, no puedes matricular tu hija aquí,” dijo Vera.

Le dieron un número de teléfono para llamar, pero Vera dudaba que la ayudara.

“No sabía inglés,” explicó. “Me sentía perdida.”

Encima de la discusión se cernía la ley de lectura del tercer grado. Para estos padres, nunca iba a ser fácil ayudar a sus niños a aprender a leer en un segundo idioma — pero la ley aumentó la presión.

Yesenia Hernandez afirmó que lee a su hija de segundo grado en inglés, pero se preocupaba que su pronunciación no es perfecta.

“Ella está aprendiendo, y yo la estoy confundiendo,” dijo.

Trabajando a lado de cinco madres, Hernandez creó una lista de las maneras en que su escuela podría ayudarle a ayudar a sus hijos. Otros grupos trabajaban en sus propias listas, y cuando compararon los resultados, se notaba muchas semejanzas. Por lo general, los padres querían comunicarse con las escuelas en español, y pidieron recursos — como clases de inglés para adultos  — cuyos beneficios se trasladarían a sus hijos. Un grupo apuntó la “sala de padres” de Priest Elementary-Middle School, donde padres que hablan español pueden reunir para compartir información y recursos.

Quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer, pero los padres admitieron que sienten inciertos sobre los efectos de la ley del tercer grado, que iniciará el año que viene. ¿Si sus hijos fueron retrasados al tercer grado, cómo serían afectados?

Para Delia Barba, no había problema: “¿Qué pasa si dicen pasa, pasa, pasa, y no sabe cómo leer?” preguntó.

Pero Gloria Vera tenía dudas. En su barrio, aproximadamente 80 por ciento de los estudiantes hablan español en casa. ¿Cuántos iban a ser regresados?

“En esta parte de Detroit, debe haber una solución,” dijo.