Keep On Keeping On

Struggling Colorado elementary school gets time to let innovation plan work

Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district felt “a little embarrassed” to be sitting before the State Board of Education Thursday.

“I really thought we would come off the clock,” she said of Billie Martinez Elementary School, which came within a hair of improving student performance enough to avoid state intervention. “But we did not come off the clock, and we own that.”

The state board, though, will let Martinez Elementary’s principal and teachers keep working within the additional autonomy they were granted last year.

A state review panel supported the school’s proposal to continue with innovation status, and five of the six board members agreed. This cooperative stance has been typical of the state board’s approach to stepping in to improve low-performing schools.

Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes praised the openness of administrators in Greeley-Evans to feedback and new ideas and said the school is making progress. Two other schools in the district north of Denver faced state intervention last year, and one of those, Franklin Middle School, has already improved enough to get off the so-called “accountability clock.”

Public schools in Colorado get a rating every year, known as the School Performance Framework report, based largely on results from student scores on the state’s English and math tests. The factor that carries the most weight is student growth, how much students learn year-to-year compared to their peers.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest). Schools that receive the state’s lowest ratings are put on “the clock.” Schools that do not improve within five years receive a state-ordered school improvement plan aimed at boosting student performance. Those plans can include anything from innovation status — which gives school leaders autonomy to address specific issues — to turning the school over to outside management to closing the school.

Martinez has been in priority improvement status since 2011. In 2017, 27.5 percent of students in grades three through five met or exceeded expectations in English and just 22.8 percent met or exceeded expectations in math. However, those numbers were up from 14 percent in 2015. The school’s overall performance rating for 2017 was 41.3 percent. The schools needs to hit 42 percent to go into “improvement” status and get off the clock.

“We have seen sustained improvement,” said Brenda Bautsch, an accountability specialist with the state Department of Education. “There are areas where the school needs to improve more.”

The school sought and received innovation status from the state board in 2017, in anticipation of but independent from the accountability clock process.

Under the increased autonomy that innovation status offers, Martinez has changed its learning model, offered more ongoing training to teachers, gotten a head start in hiring to scoop up more qualified applicants, and opened its own academic preschool serving three- and four-year-olds.

Classroom instruction is more oriented toward projects, and students are more engaged in real-world applications of what they’re learning. The school hopes to open a community health clinic in the future and offer other services to families, including basics like laundry facilities.

The school serves a community where 97 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 71 percent of students are learning English as a second language.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, was alone in criticizing the district and the school’s approach.

“You need to do more than depend on accountability, accountability, accountability and monitoring, monitoring, monitoring,” she said. “You could do some big changes. One of the things that really disturbed me is that one of the people who went and monitored your school found that teachers do not believe these students can be high achievers.”

Pilch said the teachers who saw students’ outside challenges as insurmountable have been encouraged to leave.

“If a state review panel came in now, they would not find teachers who think students can’t learn,” she said. “We now have a staff at Billie Martinez who truly believes that every student can learn.”

In accordance with the process, the State Board of Education did not take a final vote on Thursday. Instead, five of the six board members asked the district to submit a formal written proposal for innovation status. Flores said she could not support that “under these conditions.”

After the meeting, Draper, the principal, described improving the school as “the best work you can do as an educator and the toughest work you can do as an educator.”

“We are going to be a bright spot school in the state of Colorado,” she said. “We are going to set the bar for high-performing schools with the same demographics.”


help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.