Numbers game

Colorado is about to release a torrent of test results. Here are four storylines worth watching.

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

The state education department is scheduled Thursday to publicly release a mammoth amount of data detailing how Colorado students performed on last spring’s standardized tests.

We’ll get to dive into state, district and school results from English, math, science and social studies tests, the PSAT and SAT, and student academic growth, which tracks how much students learn each year compared to their academic peers.

The data — beloved or loathed depending on which educator you ask — is supposed to gauge how well students grasp the state’s academic standards that are designed to prepare them for either college or a career.

The state also uses the results, along with other factors such as graduation rates, to issue quality ratings for schools and districts. And in some instances, teachers are rated based on the data.

Here is background and some storylines to keep in mind in advance of the release:

First a reminder of where we stand:

Three years ago, the state made a monumental shift in its testing system. Colorado was one of about a dozen states to drop paper-and-pencil standardized tests in favor of a new multi-state computer-based test.

The PARCC tests would measure critical thinking, a major component of the state’s new academic standards, which devalued rote memorization.

Prior to the first release, school officials in Colorado and across the nation warned that test scores would likely be low considering the newness of the academic standards and tests.

Indeed, they were.

In 2015, only 43 percent of fourth graders met the state’s expectations on the English test. Math was worse: Only 37 percent of third graders were able to complete math equations at grade level.

In 2016, the state saw a slight uptick in scores, mirroring national trends.

However, state officials worried about how far behind students with learning disabilities were compared to their peers.

Here’s a look at the changes in test scores in English and math:




With three years of data from PARCC, we can — finally — talk about trends. But what are we going to learn that we didn’t already know?

For the last two years, state and school district officials have warned about two things: First, don’t compare the results of PARCC to that of previous standardized tests. Second, they said we needed three years of data to pinpoint trends in student performance.

Why three years?

Derek Briggs, a professor at School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also sits on the technical advisory board for PARCC, said one reason why we might need three years of data is because of exaggerated bumps sometimes found in the second year of a new standardized test.

“One explanation for this sort of trend was that it would take teachers/schools a year to figure out the emphasis on the new assessment, so in the first year, the alignment between teaching and instruction isn’t optimal, so student performance in the first year is depressed,” he said in an email. “Then in the second year, it snaps back up once instruction and assessment are better aligned.”

Briggs added that so far, no state that updated its test to align to the Common Core State Standards like Colorado did had a second year bump.

So, now we have three years of data: What can we say?

It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about state trends — especially in a local control state where so many decisions about what students learn is made at the school and district level.

But Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Delaware-based Center for Assessment, said that at the three-year mark, school officials and parents alike can start to better understand what’s working or not at individual schools.

“It can serve as a gut check about a school’s general performance over time,” D’Brot said. “If you have three points that are moving upward or constantly moving downward, we can quickly create a story around that.”

It’s more difficult to draw conclusions if a school’s results are less consistent, he said.

And there are some state-level benefits.

“This trend data can help the state evaluate their own efforts to work with districts and schools,” he said. This is especially valuable when school leaders use a variety of data points including patterns of student growth.

The state is suppressing data in an effort to “protect student privacy.” How much will be redacted?

Colorado was once considered one of the most education data-friendly states. But beginning with the first release of PARCC data in 2015, the state began blacking out more school-level data than it had in the past.

The effects of the new so-called “suppression rules” were even more pronounced in the state’s 2016 release. The state shielded roughly 4,000 data points that year, frustrating education reform advocates who say this data helps parents make better decisions about schools.

Stay tuned to see what we won’t learn about school performance due to these rules after Thursday’s release.

After two years of delayed and drawn-out data releases, the state is giving us everything on time and all at once. But the promise of getting data back quicker is still elusive.

In 2015 and 2016, testing data dribbled out of the state education department over several months — state-level results first, then school level, then student growth data. This was a departure from a decades-long routine of releasing test score data in August.

On Thursday, the state will release almost everything all at once. (District and school performance data disaggregated by different student groups is expected within a month.) This is a major victory for the state and the makers of PARCC because one of the longest-running criticisms of the test was how long it took to get data back to schools.

Schools received their results in June, the earliest data has gotten back to the schools since the state switched to PARCC.

But the timeline still falls short of one of the promises of new tests and the demands of the State Board of Education, which going forward wants data back to schools within 30 days.

Is the state’s gradual move away from PARCC at the high school level working to curb the opt out movement?

In 2015, Colorado became one of the nation’s epicenters for the testing opt out movement. Thousands of high schoolers, backed by their parents, refused to take the PARCC exams, claiming they served no educational purpose.

In some cases, entire schools sat empty during the state’s testing window.

In response, lawmakers eliminated some high school tests and changed others. In 2016, more high school sophomores took the state’s tests than the year before. Policymakers hope additional changes at the ninth grade level, set to take effect next spring, will move even more families back to the state’s testing system.

Will the trend continue? We’ll find out on Thursday.

And finally, here’s a roundup of previous coverage you might find helpful:


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.