Are Children Learning

Bye-bye bubble sheets: New Hampshire’s innovative approach to testing appeals to Indiana, other states

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in an English-learner class at Southport High School work on an assignment during the last period of the day.

As Indiana awaits recommendations from a committee that’s trying to figure out what student exams will look like after 2017, one idea out of New Hampshire is capturing the attention of educators.

New Hampshire’s “performance tasks” are considered some of the most innovative standardized tests in the country, but they don’t look much like standardized tests at all.

The new pilot program in the Granite State — called Performance Assessment of Competency Education or PACE — moves away from the computerized testing and multiple-choice bubble sheets that have been the backbone of annual state exams for decades.

In their place, the PACE program asks kids in the eight pilot districts to do “performance tasks” throughout the school year to show deep understanding of the subjects they’re studying.

For example, while a traditional geometry exam might ask students to solve math problems and even require them to show how they calculated their answer, New Hampshire now asks them to complete complex problems applied to real-word situations that require a range of skills and knowledge they’ve been learning in class.

“We asked the kids to be a town planner, and as part of that planning board they are asked to design two towers that use solids,” said Lee Sheedy, a New Hampshire high school geometry teacher who’s been working on the new test questions since the pilot began in 2014. “One would be a simple solid and the other had to be a compound solid. They then write a proposal to the town recommending one of the towers.”

To complete the task, students must draw models, do calculations, analyze results and write a proposal all in one exercise, Sheedy said.

Students in the pilot districts take the Smarter Balanced exam — a more traditional standardized test that is used in more than a dozen states — in third-grade English, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade English and math. All high-school juniors take the SAT.

In the rest of the grades, students must complete performance tasks in math, English and science throughout the year according to where those tasks fall in the curriculum. Some of the tasks are “local,” which help districts measure student progress at certain points in the academic year, but others are “common” which can be compared across districts.

Once the tasks are completed, the classroom teachers grade them. “Common” tasks are scored and then validated by the state against predetermined sample answers.

For both common and local questions, teachers are trained for about two weeks over the course of the year by their peers to use the scoring guides to grade student answers. Then, for the common questions, teachers compare their scoring processes to those of teachers’ from other schools and districts to ensure they are accurate. Final scores are reported to the state for accountability purposes.

For the water tower problem, there were four possible scores a student could receive and three main areas where they needed to show work: models and scale drawings, calculations and mathematical strategy and communication, analysis and recommendation.

Kathleen Cotton, a curriculum and instruction coach in Sheedy’s district in Rochester, New Hampshire, said that although there is extra work involved on the front end, the performance tasks give teachers information they can use immediately.

“You look at some of this high-stakes testing that we have, and it really is not engaging at the time because the students don’t really have any buy-in except of that one score at the end,” Cotton said.

Throughout the pilot, Sheedy said his students have been more engaged than they were taking traditional exams. He’s never seen kids so focused as when they are working on the new types of tests.

“When you give students a real world problem, you allow them to be creative, you allow them to think critically,” Sheedy said. “They get incredibly motivated. If you walked into my room during PACE you could hear a pin drop.”

He’s also been impressed by how much by how much developing the tasks has helped him as a teacher.

“When you let teachers … get out of their classrooms and you look at student work and you talk about it, teachers become better teachers,” Sheedy said. “Their ability to instruct and assess, it increases exponentially. I have grown more as a teacher since I’ve been doing PACE than any other thing I’ve been doing in the classroom over the last 12 years.”

The teacher-led work in designing and learning to grade the tasks was significant. Teams of teachers worked on the questions themselves and the scoring guides to grade them.

The New Hampshire experiment is making ripples across the country as more and more states are looking for alternatives to traditional once-a-year testing methods.

States looking for new options are encouraged by changes to federal testing regulations that are expected next year when the No Child Left Behind Act is replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law still requires every state to create an accountability system that measures annual student performance, but this law allows more flexibility. As many as seven states could be chosen to try new, innovative exams.

The work to completely change a testing system isn’t easy, and for larger states with more diverse student populations, varied funding across districts and stricter accountability systems, like Indiana, it’s not clear if this model would see the the same kind of success that it’s seen in New Hampshire.

It’s also not clear if Indiana education officials are going to even pursue an innovation pilot under ESSA, although state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning have expressed interest in New Hampshire’s model.

Many Indiana educators say they’re frustrated with years of ISTEP exams that have seen major delays, results that don’t do much to guide instruction and computer testing glitches. Some say they’re ready to try something new, and state officials agree.

For now, said Danielle Shockey, Indiana’s deputy state superintendent, the state will focus on its work with the new testing committee before it gets involved in a new federal initiative.

“There’s a lot left to be learned about that innovation pilot,” Shockey said.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.