analysis

Why Colorado’s testing opt-out movement could struggle to build on 2015’s big numbers

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

A year ago, thousands of Colorado students, parents and educators fed up with state tests used to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable said enough was enough.

More than 100,000 kids in grades three through 11 did not take new tests in math and language arts designed to measure how well they stack up to state academic standards.

Only about half of the state’s 11th graders took the exams. Just one grade — third — saw participation rates hit the 95 percent threshold set as the minimum required under federal law.

Colorado had become an epicenter of the opt-out movement.

This year, things are different.

Here are five reasons opt-out organizers may have a hard time building on that momentum this testing season:

There are fewer tests, and they’re shorter.

On the very last day of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers passed compromise legislation that pared back state assessments. Not everyone was satisfied, but the political dynamics of shared governance meant pragmatism was going to win out.

The biggest headline was the elimination of PARCC language arts and math tests in 10th and 11th grades — and the preservation of ninth grade tests at the insistence of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose veto pen held sway over the spring.

The biggest reason why PARCC opt-out numbers will plummet this year: High school sophomores and juniors accounted for more than half — 53,000 — of the roughly 104,000 Colorado students who did not take PARCC exams last spring, according to state data.

At the same time, PARCC exams got a little shorter for the states that remain in the increasingly skeletal multi-state collective that give the online Common Core tests.

At least one Colorado opt-out activist has said the goal for this year is to grow the number of opt-outs three-fold — to 300,000.

But former teacher Angela Engel, founder and executive director of United for Kids, a volunteer-run nonprofit that focuses not just on opt-out but more broadly on equity, innovation and organizing parents, cautioned against using raw numbers as a measuring stick.

With 10th and 11th grade PARCC testing gone, Engel argues the strength of the opt-out movement is better measured in the percentage of students that opt-out this spring.

“One of my concerns is that it’ll appear that opt-out is actually on the decline, when it’s not,” she said. “What is in decline is the amount of testing.”

Two opt-out hot spots last year report things haven’t changed much so far this year. In the Boulder Valley School District, about half of ninth-graders, a quarter of middle-schoolers and one in 10 elementary school students have opted out of PARCC this spring, officials say. The Cherry Creek School District says opt-out figures there are tracking with last year’s, too.

Colorado Education Commissioner Rich Crandall told Chalkbeat earlier this spring he expects much greater participation rates on this year’s state tests.

“I think we’re in a fair place,” Crandall said of Colorado’s testing landscape. “It’s definitely not too much testing, and I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.”

The political noise has quieted — for now.

A year ago, backlash against Common Core standards and the debut of PARCC tests dominated headlines. As online PARCC tests arrived — and not without glitches — state lawmakers got to work.

Not only was testing reform the signature education issue of the session, it was one of the biggest issues of the session, period.

Even before the 2016 General Assembly began, lawmakers signaled they were tired of it. Consider this, from a Democrat on the Senate Education Committee:

Sure enough, attempts to further chisel away at testing have fizzled this year.

On Tuesday, a bill that would have eliminated mandatory ninth grade PARCC tests died a swift death on the Senate floor. That the measure couldn’t even clear the Republican-controlled Senate — where it stood a far better chance of passage — tells you all you need to know.

There’s another reason for Colorado’s acceptance of the status quo this year: The long-in-the-making rewrite of the nation’s primary K-12 education law gives states greater flexibility to strike out on their own when it comes to what testing looks like and how it relates to accountability.

Crandall has not been shy about wanting to put Colorado at the front of the line in seeking this flexibility. Lawmakers have expressed interest in doing the same, when the time is right.

Colorado’s break from the testing wars may end up being a one-year cease fire.

There’s little evidence — so far — the opt-out movement is getting more diverse.

You might have seen the Twitter hashtag #optoutsowhite.

That the opt-out movement’s biggest numbers lie in wealthy white suburban enclaves such as south suburban Denver and Boulder County is indisputable.

Last year in Colorado, white students were disproportionately represented in the group that did not take PARCC tests, state data shows. Across all tested grades, about 78 percent of white students took the tests, while 85 percent of black students and 88 percent of Hispanic students did. Fewer than 9 percent of those who missed the exams last spring were eligible for free and reduced lunch status — an indicator of poverty.

It’s unclear how many students skipped the tests in protest or missed them for other reasons. (The figures above were calculated using the English tests; math participation was comparable).

An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).
An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).

As Politico noted earlier this spring, the opt-out movement is working to diversify it ranks and persuade minority parents that state tests are bad for their kids.

In Colorado, a small-scale billboard campaign encouraging opt-out this spring is focused not on minority communities but rather high-population centers, said Engel, of United for Kids. Five billboard designs picturing children who are opting out — one of them an African-American girl — are on display along the Front Range.

Jennilynne Coley is a Cherry Creek School District parent who is refusing to allow her African-American son to take state tests this spring at Laredo Middle School in Aurora.

Coley said she doesn’t think the tests accurately measure his intelligence or chances of success. She believes the tests are used unfairly against teachers in evaluations and determining their pay. And she is convinced the focus on testing unduly influences classroom teaching.

I asked Coley why more parents of students of color haven’t embraced the opt-out movement.

“When you don’t understand or know how the system works, you don’t understand you do have power and you do have a voice and you can speak up,” said Coley, who is self-employed.

She went on to say that minority parents are more likely to listen to school leaders and other authority figures, and are “busy taking care of their families and trying to survive.”

At the same time, standardized testing supporters are working to shore up support in minority communities, arguing that mass opt-outs will once again obscure achievement gaps that No Child Left Behind-era testing finally brought to the surface.

The opt-out movement — and the motivations behind it — is diffuse.

If it feels hard to get your hands around the opt-out movement, you’re not imagining things.

There is no one dominant organization, no one-stop shop for information. The movement is comprised of a few volunteer-run groups with not a lot of money, and engaged parents and students who are relying primarily on word of mouth and social media to spread their message.

“It’s pretty diffuse,” said former Jefferson County school board member Paula Noonan, who has an ear to the ground on opt-out doings. “It’s generally grassroots and under the radar.”

In late February in Los Angeles, I moderated an Education Writers Association panel on the opt-out movement. To open the discussion, I posed this question to Robert Schaeffer, a longtime critic of standardized testing who is public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing:

“What is the ultimate goal of opt-out? Is it to eliminate accountability-based standardized testing altogether? To reduce the volume of testing? To uncouple tests from school accountability and teacher evaluations? All of the above?”

Schaeffer’s reply, roughly paraphrased: All of the above.

While the loose structure and a wide range of agendas can prove beneficial, it also makes growing a movement challenging.

Opt-outs rates are likely to rise in some places — in ninth grade, certain high schools and some rural districts — but not enough to offset these other factors.

Let’s be clear: The opt-out movement in Colorado is not just limping along, nor is it going anywhere. It’s hard to imagine parents who opposed testing all of a sudden last year having a change of heart.

Schools in high-performing, affluent suburban areas with high opt-out rates last year may very well top them this year.

Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).
Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).

Parents in rural districts that didn’t see much opt-out activity last year may look at what happened in other rural communities last year and join the cause.

One thing seems a safe bet: lower participation in ninth-grade PARCC exams — possibly much lower.

It’s easy to envision high school freshmen looking at their older classmates and saying, “If they don’t have to take these tests, why should I?” An underwhelming number of students taking ninth grade tests would provide more ammunition to backers of finding alternative tests for freshmen.

Reports also are trickling in of poor participation on high school science tests — these are Colorado-only tests, not part of PARCC — in some school and districts.

Noonan, the former Jeffco board member, said Colorado opt-out activists are focusing efforts on elementary schools, where testing participation is high. You can see the logic — start ’em young. But it might be prove a tough sell.

“For the most part, at the elementary level, there is still value in knowing how our students are doing,” said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation in the Cherry Creek district.

Proponents of Colorado’s academic standards and aligned tests, meanwhile, hold out hope that year one was the toughest, and that more people will buy into the tests once they get used to them and get a fuller picture of student performance.

“Going into the second year, we’re going to start to see growth data and more information because we can compare the results to previous years,” said Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the tests.

The state’s official testing window closes Friday, and a full picture of participation rates will not be available for a few months.

Absent the political rancor, tests in two critical high school grades or significant progress in growing and diversifying their ranks, anti-testing activists’ goal of building on the momentum of last year’s big opt-out numbers faces a tough test.

New research

From an ‘F’ to an ‘A’, Tennessee now sets high expectations for students, says Harvard study

PHOTO: Lisegagne/Getty Images

Criticized for setting low expectations for students just a decade ago, Tennessee has dramatically raised the bar for standards that now rank among the top in the nation, according to a new analysis from Harvard University.

The state earned an “A” for its 2017 proficiency standards in a study released Tuesday by the same researchers who gave Tennessee an “F” in that category in 2009.

The researchers have been tracking state proficiency standards since 2006. Their latest analysis focused on changes since 2009 when, like Tennessee, most states began adopting Common Core academic standards, then began retreating one by one from the nationally endorsed benchmarks.

Did the exodus from a consistent set of standards cause states to lower expectations for students? The researchers say no.

“Our research shows that most all the states have actually improved their standards, and Tennessee has probably improved the most because its standards were so low in the past,” said Paul Peterson, who co-authored the analysis with Daniel Hamlin.

The grades are based on the difference between the percentages of students deemed proficient on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to measure what students know in math and English language arts. The narrower the proficiency gap between those tests, the higher the grade a state received.

Tennessee’s 2009 proficiency gap was 63 percent, an amount that Peterson called “ridiculous” and “the worst in the country” compared to 37 percent nationally.

In 2017, Tennessee’s gap narrowed to less than 3 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, under revised standards that reached classrooms last fall after the state exited the Common Core brand.

“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Peterson said of Tennessee’s work to align its standards with national expectations.

Interestingly, in other states, the study found virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test score growth — a finding that the researchers called “disheartening.”

“The one exception was Tennessee,” Peterson said of the state’s academic gains on NAEP since 2011. “It has not only raised its standards dramatically, it saw some student gains over the same period.”

Since 2010, higher academic standards has been an integral part of Tennessee’s long-term plan for improving public education. The other two components are an aligned state assessment and across-the-board accountability systems for students, teachers and schools, including a controversial policy to include student growth from standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Tennessee poured millions of federal dollars from its 2010 Race to the Top award into training teachers on its new standards. The process began in 2012 with large-scale Common Core trainings and shifted last year to regional trainings aimed at equipping local educators to prepare their peers back home for Tennessee’s revised standards.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee’s revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Implementation really matters. You can’t just make the shift on paper,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will take part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “You have to do the hard work to implement it on the ground. And that is a long game.”

The Harvard study comes on the heels of a separate but related report by pro-Common Core group Achieve that says Tennessee is essentially being more honest in how its students are doing academically. The state was called out in 2007 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because Tennessee tests showed students doing well, while national tests reported otherwise.

Both analyses come as Tennessee tries to regroup after a problem-plagued return to statewide online testing this spring.

While supporters of Tennessee’s current policy agenda fear that headaches with the state’s standardized test could undo the policies it may be getting right, Peterson said a study like Harvard’s can provide a birds-eye view.

“What happens over a period of years is a better way to look at how a state is doing,” he said, “because things can fluctuate from one year to the next.”

The Harvard research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization and also receives funding from both foundations. You can find the list of our supporters here and learn more about Chalkbeat here.)

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.