READ ACT ROUND ROBIN

Colorado State Board of Education adopts new early literacy rules for native Spanish speakers, reversing earlier decision

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Elizabeth Sanchez, a math teacher at Denver's Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, checks the homework of a student in this 2014 file photo.

The State Board of Education ended a two-year debate over how to measure the reading skills of Colorado’s youngest students learning English as a second language after it unanimously adopted Wednesday new policies to comply with a legislative compromise passed last spring.

The rule change applies to English learners whose native language is Spanish. Under the board-approved policy, school districts will be able to choose whether to test students who have limited English proficiency in either English or Spanish.

The board, at the request of associations representing school executives and boards of education, backed off additional reporting requirements that were outside the scope of the legislation.

But the new guidelines do provide parents the right to request students be tested in English, and requires school districts that reject such a request to share their reasoning with parents.

“I think we need to give them that right,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “Districts shouldn’t fight them on this.”

The board’s action Wednesday coupled with this spring’s legislation reverses a controversial decision the state board made in 2016 that required schools to test the literacy skills of students enrolled in kindergarten through third grade in English — even if they knew no English at all.

The state board’s debate over the state’s early literacy law, the READ Act, was often framed more by the personal opinion of board members rather than education research and context provided by the state education department.

Some conservative board members repeatedly raised the specter that school districts, especially those with large populations of English learners, were attempting to sidestep their duty of teaching English — or at least trying to hide poor results.

School officials and other experts argued that testing a student’s literacy skills in a language they were more fluent in would provide better information to help teachers do their job.

Colorado lawmakers passed the READ Act in 2012. The goal of the legislation, often considered one of the state’s landmark education reform efforts, was to increase the number of students reading at grade level by the third grade.

The law, as originally passed, was silent on whether schools were required to test students in English.

Research has long held that students reading at grade level in third grade are more likely to have academic success through the rest of their educational careers. Conversely, students who aren’t reading at grade-level by the third grade are more apt to drop out.

The READ Act requires schools to monitor students for “significant” reading deficiencies. Students who are flagged are supposed to be put on a monitoring plan and are receive additional services from the school.

Putting the legislation into place in classrooms has provided mixed results. Some educators worry the policy adds an unnecessary testing burden on students and adds mountains of paperwork for teachers. Others say the READ Act has brought a renewed focus on a critical learning milestone.

The state has wrestled for years with how to best gauge the literacy skills of students learning English as a second language. The debate peaked in 2016 when the then-Republican controlled state board, over objections from education leaders in Denver and other school districts, adopted new rules requiring those young language learners to be tested at least once in English.

Susana Cordova, who was then Denver Public Schools’ acting superintendent, warned the change would lead to more testing and possibly over-identifying English learners as having reading deficiencies.

A bipartisan coalition of Colorado lawmakers went to work this year to reverse the state board’s decision. A compromise was ultimately reached that allowed school districts to choose which language to test students enrolled in dual language programs who were not yet proficient in English.

On Wednesday, board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, reiterated his concern that the changes would open the door for school districts to side-step an obligation to English language learners.

He said there were only two reasons to oppose testing students in English: “One is you don’t value teaching kids English, or two you don’t want to admit failure in getting kids to speak English … otherwise everyone should be proud to report their READ Act results.”

The board’s new rules could apply to other English learners if the state adopts literacy tests in other languages.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.