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.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”