May 06, 2015 News » Cover Story

This is not a test 

In the standardized-exam debate, two Springs school districts stake out very different turf

Michael Miller grabs a plastic microphone and calls for today's "special guest star," as 15 Cheyenne Mountain Junior High seventh-graders pound their desks.

The kid in question, a blushing boy, comes to the front of the classroom to help collect homework assignments as Miller shouts questions in German and the kids eagerly respond with answers. Class is in session.

Over the next 45 minutes, a girl vacuums a rug with an old Kirby as Miller continues barking questions over the racket. Kids dive under their desks on command. Miller sits in a chair, apparently watching Dora the Explorer on an invisible TV while demanding a tuna fish sandwich. Wearing a blazer and tie, he also accosts children with a feather duster and a stuffed dog, and even dons a silk hat and attempts to fly a rug, à la Aladdin.

At one point, three children gather around a purple plastic dollhouse. Each has a figurine representing a character in Miller's ongoing "soap opera." There's a couple, Michael and Sabine, and their neighbor, Rolf, and they're all engaged in housework — important because the students are learning words associated with the home.

The kids crash the dolls around the pretty little house, acting out the scenes that Miller animatedly directs. At one point, Michael is supposed to be dusting the house. But he has no movable arms and so, Miller notes, Michael will simply have to dust everything with his head. The doll's handler complies, swinging poor Michael around the house and knocking over furniture in a fashion more likely to give the doll a serious head injury then to eradicate any dirt.

It is both bizarre and impressive. Nearly all the conversation — and there's a lot of it — is in German. There are no kids staring at cell phones, talking to friends, doodling or staring blankly into space. Each child seems fully engaged in this charade. They're laughing. Guffawing. Volunteering answers.

In 2013, Miller's program received the German Center of Excellence designation by the American Association of Teachers of German. The prestigious designation is rare for middle-school-specific programs. Miller says it wasn't standards or tests that got him to that award — it was sort of the opposite.

Toward the beginning of his 28-year teaching career, Miller says, he marched into his principal's office and asked if he could throw away his textbooks and create his own curriculum. It's difficult to imagine now, in a time when lessons are largely dictated by state standards, but the principal agreed.

Given incredible flexibility, Miller created a curriculum that emphasizes talking and visual aids (hence that vacuum cleaner), and leads the kids through lessons that mirror a PG-rated soap opera. He's since sold it nationwide.

"When you come into my class, it feels like just talking; it doesn't feel like learning," he says. "Let me ask you this, how did you learn English? Did Mama put a book in your hand and say, 'Let's learn conjugation?'"

Like many teachers, some of whom have taken to the streets lately in protest, Miller isn't a fan of the state's current system of standardized testing. But unlike many of those teachers, Miller doesn't appear to have a dog in the fight. He's an outstanding teacher in the highest-ranked large school district in the state who teaches a subject that isn't addressed on the tests. He's also retiring in two years.

But Miller says testing impacts his students adversely.

"Six days of testing is brutal," he says, referring to the way his district administers the state's standardized tests. "To tell little kids to sit down and shut up for that long, while they hunt and peck on the keyboard, is overkill."

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12's Board of Education apparently agrees. In February, it authored a position statement calling for fewer and shorter standardized tests. This, despite the fact that D-12 performed at or near the top of all Colorado schools for all grade levels on the state's main standardized test last year. The district has also had very high participation in standardized tests historically, but saw mass opt-outs at the high school level this spring.

State legislators, on both sides of the aisle, have been preoccupied with standardized testing and other education issues this year, but as of press time they have been unable to come to a clear consensus — though a compromise bill to reduce testing appeared likely to pass. In advance of the end of the session today, the legislature has been killing off its tsunami of test-related bills at an increasing rate.

Among other things, those bills addressed:

• cutting back on testing or allowing more flexibility on what tests districts choose to administer

• cementing parents' right to opt their child out of testing, and removing penalties for schools, districts and teachers

• delaying or eliminating the requirement that teachers be evaluated partially on their students' test scores next year

• changing or eliminating some state standards

While the teacher-evaluation piece has been controversial from the get-go — as Miller puts it, "You can't judge a dentist on how many of his patients have cavities" — the other measures represent quite a pendulum swing. Back in 2001, No Child Left Behind transformed schools to much fanfare by requiring extensive standardized testing. Schools that didn't perform faced penalties and improvement plans. At the time, more testing was thought to be the solution to a host of problems in public schools. It was supposed that by using data, federal and state governments could ensure that all children were learning the basic skills they needed to succeed in life.

Notably, NCLB was actually an update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which dates to 1965, and is currently being updated again by the U.S. Congress (leading to a lot of debate).

In Colorado, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test is the state's new main standardized exam, its answer to federally mandated requirements. But over time, states like Colorado have added their own tests. Colorado now also tests young kids several times a year in reading; requires social studies tests throughout a child's education; and has standardized tests for three high-school grade levels instead of the federally required one.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has supported some mild streamlining of the state's testing system. But on April 22 he, along with former Govs. Roy Romer and Bill Owens, defended the tests overall, saying they prepare kids to compete in the modern economy.

Kate Doran, spokesperson for Stand for Children Colorado, feels similarly. She said her nonprofit supports some reduction in Colorado's testing, but is 100 percent behind the PARCC.

"[W]e strongly support Colorado's new state tests which are designed to measure how students are doing reaching our new higher standards and make sure they are on track for success after high school," Doran stated in an email to the Independent. "I've spoken to educators who support these new tests because they are better than our old tests, for example, students are asked to apply knowledge they have gained in the classroom, compare strategies and explain their approach rather than bubbling A or B. We need to be able to measure progress and understand where students need additional help and a good test is one tool to do that."

All this in mind, we spent some time in two districts whose test results historically have occupied opposite ends of the spectrum. There, we asked superintendents and a half-dozen high-performing teachers (see sidebars) what they'd like to see done about the state's standardized tests.

Data has been the name of the game in Harrison School District 2 for a long time, and Andre Spencer says that when he was named superintendent in 2012, he focused on elevating it even more. Covering the southeast portion of Colorado Springs, Harrison has always served a lot of disadvantaged kids, and for years, its test scores reflected that, leading the state to identify the district as needing improvement. Until recently, that is.

"I don't see how we would be able to make the progress and have the performance that we have without using our achievement data," Spencer says. "For the past two years, we have been an accredited district [meaning it meets the state's performance indicators], which is the second-highest performance rating ... in the state of Colorado. And that's pretty significant progress."

For instance, in 2009, 69 percent of Harrison third-graders scored proficient or advanced on their standardized reading test. In 2014, 73.2 percent of the district's third-graders hit that target. Third-grade reading scores are thought to be predictors of children's success throughout their school career.

Harrison uses a system called Galileo to track student progress. State assessments like the PARCC are tracked, as are classroom tests and assessments administered by the district — Harrison has district tests for nearly every course.

Sometimes, teachers and administrators will group students who are achieving at a similar level to see if they are all improving at the same rate. Other times, they'll use it to try to figure out why a kid is falling behind, or to identify a gifted child who should be on an accelerated course. Teachers sometimes transfer the data to walls in their schools, where magnets represent each child's progress.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spencer is a huge fan of the PARCC, which he says makes students "think deeper and broader." He's not worried about how long it takes — he notes that kids don't spend more than 5 percent of their instructional time taking assessments in Harrison. He's not worried about teachers teaching to the test, because he believes the test is all about critical thinking and real-world problems, which is what he wants his teachers to focus on anyway. And he's not worried about the test being given on a computer program some find confusing. (The program has also had significant technical problems this year.) Technology, he says, is the language of children.

"That's the way they learn, and that's the way it is in their world, so to go forth with technology-based learning, technology-based assessments, in my opinion, it's a must for our students. And when it comes down to glitches or any issues that come about with the technology, well, I think we fix it and move on."

In fact, Spencer says he really only sees two problems with the current testing system. First, he's not a fan of the 12th-grade social studies test. Seniors, he says, are focused on college, jobs or the military — whatever life they're moving on to. They just don't put a lot of effort into a standardized test like this one.

Second, he thinks that there's a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of state assessments. He often hears from teachers that the test results come too late to be of any help to them, since by the time they come out, the school year has ended. But state tests aren't meant to help teachers, he says. They're meant to help districts.

"The state assessment is a summative assessment," he says. "It is measuring, 'Did students master the concepts that we said students should master?' And so, when we use summative data, we're using [it] to make adjustments systemically, not necessarily per class."

Veronica Layman's sixth-graders — dressed uniformly in red, black, khaki and white— gab as they file into her math class at Fox Meadow Middle School at Harrison.

Layman, a long, thin column in a bohemian-style sundress, who has been teaching seven years and has earned Harrison's distinction of "distinguished teacher," wastes no time getting them on task. First they must write the number of pets they have on the white board, then use those numbers to create a line plot.

Layman doesn't do a lot of solemn lecturing. If she's reading a rule, the kids have to repeat it after her. If there's problem-solving to be done, she calls on the kids at random for an answer. If the student answers wrong, the other kids have to figure out why it's wrong. The kids often stomp or clap to agree or disagree with an answer.

Most of the class period is actually taken up by a game called "Round Robin Solving." The kids are given a worksheet, and must pair up with a classmate to solve each problem. When Layman says "switch," they change partners and move on to the next problem.

The kids seem to pick their best friends at first, but with only 14 kids in the class, they end up pairing with nearly everyone by the end of the worksheet. They work diligently. Their mumbles, which almost come in unison, are things like "Well, if there's 24 hours in a day ..." or "Maximum means ..."

Layman teaches sixth-grade math to classes of average kids, gifted kids, and kids who are falling behind. She uses methods like this on all of them. She says it's one of the things she's learned from assessments — that it's important to let kids explore a concept. They do better if they work out a problem over several steps in a way that mirrors real life. It's like at a grocery store, she says — there isn't just a total cost of the groceries. There's discounts and coupons to figure in as well.

Let kids use their minds in this way, she says, and they stay on task. And these kids certainly seem to be laser-focused, although it's hard to tell whether that's because they're genuinely curious about the problems or simply scurrying to get them done before Layman yells "switch."

Says Layman: "I hardly have any behavior problems anymore."

In March, 96 percent of Cheyenne Mountain high schoolers took the first half of the PARCC test. In April and May, less than 25 percent of those same high schoolers took the second half. Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper says he's not surprised.

"I envisioned we'd have exponential — I even told our board that we'd have exponentially greater numbers of parent refusals when we circled back around," he says.

Part of that is timing. When the kids took the first half of the test, there wasn't a lot of controversy about it. Since then, parents have been opting their kids out of the test statewide, legislators have been scrambling to change the system and teachers' unions have argued against the PARCC. High schoolers are also taking the ACT and their Advanced Placement tests this time of year — tests that have a huge impact on their college careers. Cooper says the PARCC, on the other hand, doesn't mean a lot to them.

"If I were assessment king for the day, I would eliminate all high school testing except for the ACT or something like it," he says. "... There's skin in the game for everybody. And when there's skin in the game, that's when you get everybody's best attempt... Did we have anybody opt out of the ACT? No. Why not? It's important to them."

Cooper says he isn't opposed to testing. In fact, Cheyenne Mountain has its own tests in reading and math. It uses the data to determine where kids are falling behind. He says he was also fine with the state's previous tests, which attracted very few opt-outs.

The problem isn't testing, he says. The problem is the PARCC.

"The state did not get this one right," he says. "They got it wrong."

Cooper says the PARCC is based on good standards, and many of the questions are sound. But it comes with all sorts of mandates and reporting requirements that are tiresome for teachers and districts; it takes far too long to administer; and the computer program requires extensive setup and training to use because kids aren't familiar with it.

Cooper remembers hearing about one bright boy who couldn't figure out how to create an exponent on his PARCC math test. He got the question wrong.

"There's no doubt in my mind that kid could have easily done that problem with a pencil and paper," he says.

The state is paying for its mistakes, Cooper says, because without widespread participation in the PARCC, it's virtually useless. You need the vast majority of kids statewide to take the test in order to make accurate measurements of achievement.

Cooper says he's used standardized test data in the past "to ask questions" about what the district can teach better. He'd support a new test if it were shorter, and feels that the district's own short tests are useful because they provide immediate feedback. But he says he's never wanted to over-emphasize testing, because he wants his teachers to focus on teaching in the best way they know how.

"If we do right by kids, if we focus on solid instruction, if we focus on high student engagement, if we meet the needs of kids in classrooms," he says, "then the assessment is going to take care of itself."

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