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.

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.