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  • 09/23/2021 12:53 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    State superintendent sets goal to get all California third graders reading by 2026

    LITERACY

    SEPTEMBER 22, 2021
    ALI TADAYON
    11 COMMENTS

    CREDIT: ASHLEY HOPKINSON/EDSOURCE

    Victor Reyes, 2, selects a book to read before a summer storytime in San Francisco, Calif.

    After years in which reading scores throughout the state fell short, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced a new initiative Tuesday that would get all California third-grade students reading by 2026.

    Though the specifics of the initiative have not been worked out, Thurmond said he plans to put together a task force of educators, parents and education experts within the next few weeks that will eventually make policy recommendations. Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Alameda, will author a bill for the upcoming legislative cycle that will address and fund those recommendations.

    Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade will struggle to catch up throughout their education career. During the 2018-19 school year, only 51% of California students in grades three through 11 tested at grade level or above in English language arts on the state’s Smarter Balanced tests; only 48.5% of third graders tested at grade level or above in English language arts.

    Research also shows that students who struggle with reading in the third grade can also be at greater risk of dropping out of school and end up in the criminal justice system, Thurmond said.

    “This is a strategy about helping children learn to read, but also about putting them on a path that can create success,” said Thurmond, speaking at West Contra Costa Unified’s West County Mandarin School.

    Accountability measurements for the initiative will be determined by the task force, Thurmond said. It will also focus on school readiness, professional learning, reducing chronic absenteeism, bilingual education and support that will offset some social and economic impacts that can become a barrier to students, he said.

    The task force will decide if the goal is to have all third graders able to read or to have them reading at grade level.

    Early literacy has been a focus for policymakers for years. Thurmond said it’s been a priority of his since he was elected in 2018; however, he said, the pandemic has “upended” some of his team’s efforts to address the issue.

    In 2020, the state settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of students who struggled with reading at three elementary schools by rewarding 75 elementary schools across the state a total of $50 million in state block grants. The money pays for literacy coaches, teachers aides, training for teachers and reading material that reflects the cultural makeup of the student population.

    What makes this new initiative different from the others, Thurmond said, is that it will set a concrete goal of getting students reading by the third grade. This will help “stitch together” other available resources and work that’s already been done, he said.

    One of the challenges to the 2026 goal is research suggesting that many children have lost momentum on fundamental literacy skills during the pandemic. The university-based research organization PACE found that reading fluency in second and third graders fell about 30% behind the usual benchmark in a study comparing data from fall 2020 with fall 2019.

    “This campaign launches at a time when we have all seen how drastically our education systems can change in a crisis,” said Christopher Nellum, executive director of Education Trust-West. “We’ve seen it all across the state in the last 18-20 months, and in our opinion now is the time to act with the same sense of urgency with regard to our literacy crisis in California.”

    Another challenge is a statewide shortage of teachers and paraprofessionals. Though the task force may end up calling for more reading coaches and other specialists, districts may struggle to find them.

    To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

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  • 09/14/2021 1:50 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    California will give a short version of its standardized math and English tests next spring

    Smarter Balanced will be cut by 1 to 2 hours with no impact on accuracy of scores, state says

    TESTING AND ACCOUNTABILITY

    SEPTEMBER 10, 2021
    JOHN FENSTERWALD
    2 COMMENTS

    CREDIT: ALISON YIN/EDSOURCE

    The “Smarter Balanced” standardized tests in math and English language arts that California students will take in the spring to measure their academic progress will have fewer questions and take less time than the pre-Covid versions. But the test results to parents won’t provide as much information as in the past.

    On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved the shorter test that the California Department of Education recommended. The shorter version will give districts more flexibility in scheduling the tests, free up time for more instruction and reduce the potential for internet glitches with fully online test, the department argued in making its case.

    GOING DEEPER

    The California Department of Education explained its proposal for the Smarter Balanced test and an update on other assessments to the state board . Go here to see the presentation.

    It’s actually identical to the short version that the board approved for spring of 2021, when most districts were still in distance learning.

    At that time, given the option of administering Smarter Balanced or their own local assessment, many, if not most, chose a test other than Smarter Balanced last spring. It’s hard to know, however, because the state didn’t require that districts report their choices or the scores.

    Related


    Local Assessments An Option If Smarter Balanced Tests ‘Not Viable,’ U.S. Education Officials Affirm

    But the Smarter Balanced tests will be mandatory in spring 2022. The department says the short version of the combined math and English language arts tests will take 4 1/2 hours for grades 3 to 5, 90 minutes less than before; 4 hours, 45 minutes for grades 6 to 8, 75 minutes shorter; and 5 ½ hours for 11th grade, 2 hours shorter.

    Performance tasks — the longer problem-solving and research exercises on the test — will remain intact, while the multiple-choice questions will be cut in half.

    Scores will be just as accurate, since the proportion of questions will be equally reduced in all areas of the tests, said Mao Vang, director of the department’s Assessment Development and Administration Division. And parents will receive their students’ scores along with their ranking — whether the scores were far below standard, below standard, at standard or above.

    What parents won’t get is their child’s scores on components of the test: reading, writing, listening, and research and inquiry for English language arts; and concepts/procedures, problem solving, communicating reasoning and data analysis for math — at least next year.

    This lack of detail is why a number of civil rights and groups advocating for low-income students opposed the short form.

    “Losing key summative data makes it more difficult to gauge performance on key standards, and more difficult to tackle equity of opportunity and identify achievement gaps” across ethnic and racial groups, testified Lexi Lopez, communications manager for the advocacy group EdVoice. “During these times, schools should be providing parents with more information about student performance — not less.”

    The Local Control Funding Formula Equity Coalition, representing a dozen statewide organizations, argued that a shorter test could actually result in more total testing time, because districts “may end up backfilling” information not provided by Smarter Balanced by administering additional local assessments.

    But districts should be using more “interim” tests and short or “formative” assessments throughout the year that “allow educators to drill down and see how students are doing within particular content and topic areas,” said board President Linda Darling-Hammond. That’s what the state should be encouraging, said Darling-Hammond, an emeritus professor in education at Stanford University.

    Seven of the 12 states that use the Smarter Balanced tests used the shorter form last year, and many will probably do so again this year, said Tony Alpert, the executive director of Smarter Balanced. The department staff didn’t say whether they’d recommend continuing with the short form in future years, although they indicated that might be the case. But they said that use of the short form in the spring would not interfere with plans by 2024 to add a “growth model” as a way to measure student test scores. A growth model is a technically complex but useful method that all but a few states use to measure the progress over time of individual students’ test scores. The state board adopted it in May, five years after the idea was first raised.

    Darling-Hammond and other board members said that it’s possible that the pandemic may create challenges for months and that a shorter version would provide more flexibility to administer the test. Reflecting first-hand views of a teacher and a student, board members Haydee Rodriguez and Rana Banankhah also said to use the short form.

    “I want to echo what’s already been said. I’ll just say that with my experience as a classroom teacher, I’m in support of this recommendation,” said Rodriguez, a bilingual and bicultural high school teacher at Central Union High School, near the Mexican border.

    “I found that this shortened test was absolutely beneficial to my class, especially those connecting from home who had trouble with tech issues, which definitely slowed them down. And I was one of those students,” said Banankhah, a senior at Modesto High. “Students with internet issues are probably going to be disproportionally socioeconomically disadvantaged and rural students. This recommendation would definitely improve equity among students.”

    Smarter Balanced scores next spring will be publicly reported and applied to the California School Dashboard in 2022 for the first time in three years. The rating system measures improvement or lack of progress in schools and districts using multiple indicators. However, the dashboard’s color rating system ratings won’t reappear until 2023.


  • 09/14/2021 1:41 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Legislature reaffirms quarantined students must be in independent study to be funded

    Districts warn a teacher shortage will determine their ability to handle quarantines

    LEGISLATION

    SEPTEMBER 13, 2021
    JOHN FENSTERWALD

    CREDIT: DANIA MAXWELL/LOS ANGELES TIMES

    Face masks are among the safety requirements for schools that reopen.

    Before heading home for the year Friday, state lawmakers adopted a measure intended to make it easier for districts to educate students during a Covid quarantine, along with a way for districts to get funding if they can prove they tried but failed to find the staff needed to meet their obligation.

    UPDATE ON THE NEW RULES

    The California Department of Education produced a memo on Friday summarizing the rules governing independent study for 2021-22. It incorporates the changes to independent study in Assembly Bill 167, which the Legislature passed Thursday and forwarded to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. Go here to read it.

    However, the infection rate of the delta virus in coming weeks and negotiations with teachers, more than statutory changes, will ultimately determine whether school districts will be able to teach both students in the classroom and those forced to learn at home.

    “We’re hopeful, and superintendents are working hard to make that happen,” but it’s premature to predict they’ll be able to,” said Michael Hulsizer, chief deputy for governmental affairs for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. “It’s difficult, and the teacher shortage is real.”

    Late Thursday, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 167, an amended budget “trailer bill” that includes amendments to rules governing independent study that lawmakers passed only two months ago as part of the state budget. Since then, the quickly spreading delta coronavirus variant has upended some of lawmakers’ assumptions about reopening schools.

    Independent study had been a rarely used nonclassroom-based education option for child actors, aspiring Olympic athletes and others with unconventional schedules. The Legislature expanded it to include it as an option for parents who are apprehensive about sending their children to school during the pandemic and added rules to ensure that schools assigned academic work and tracked students’ performance as conditions for funding. For students in independent study for a total of 15 or more days, which would include students quarantined more than once, legislators also added minimum requirements for live instruction and, for some grades, daily contact between students and a supervising teacher.

    A spot check of districts has revealed that 2% to 5% of students had signed up for independent study, with a few districts as high as 10%. Some districts — especially those that started planning for independent study in July or had already intended to start virtual academies — are better positioned to meet the statutory requirement by hiring a combination of new teachers or subs. But a rise in positive infections in turn has led to a surge of Covid quarantines of students, and the closure of at least five rural schools. Superintendents already struggling with frustrated parents on waitlists for independent study now are worried they will face quarantined students who are entitled immediately to short-term independent study.

    “California schools were already facing severe staffing shortages prior to the pandemic, and consequential impacts on classrooms are only exacerbating that reality,” said Edgar Zazueta, senior director, policy and governmental relations, for the Association of California School Administrators.

    That association and other school organizations had hoped the Legislature would let districts revert during quarantines to distance learning under last year’s emergency regulations. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature had let the one-year regulations governing distance learning expire in June and said independent study would be the only alternative to in-person instruction that the state would fund in 2021-22.

    Unlike last year’s regulations that guaranteed funding with little accountability, districts will be funded this year only if they can show that students signed an independent study contract and performed schoolwork equivalent to what is required of in-person students.

    In passing AB 167, lawmakers remained resolute on running quarantines through independent study. But they did clarify confusing wording, reassuring districts they could use Zoom and other platforms for remote learning, and they made other allowances:

    • Substitute teachers could be assigned for up to 60 days at a time, instead of 30 days, which will make scheduling easier;
    • Districts can be reimbursed retroactively for independent study from the first day of a quarantine and can take up to 30 days to have parents and students sign a contract;
    • Districts that can prove, with affidavits, that they did all they could to fill a staff shortage during a quarantine can seek a waiver through their county offices of education, subject to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s approval, for funding even if all students aren’t served.

    It’s not clear whether those funding exceptions, similar to the waivers districts receive for evacuations and closures caused by wildfires, will be readily given. But over the coming weeks, it will become clearer whether they will be needed.

    Have infections peaked?

    Districts are considering options to ease the shortage. One is to expand the ratio of students to a supervising teacher during a quarantine. Another, which teachers and administrators agree is preferable, is for a classroom teacher to oversee independent study during a quarantine, either by simultaneously Zooming to students at home and in class, which many teachers found difficult, or by assigning work to quarantined students and meeting with them online after school.

    All the options, which change working conditions, require negotiations with teachers unions over more money for added time and responsibilities or a waiver from student-teacher ratios. Districts can use some of the billions of dollars in one-time federal and state Covid aid to pay teachers for extra work and pay subs a more attractive rate.

    Some districts have reached agreements with teachers, but many haven’t, and teachers unions in at least a few are using contract reopening to press for permanent raises for all teachers, complicating negotiations. United Teachers Los Angeles is demanding a 6% raise retroactive to July, a $2,500 “one-time stipend” for all full-time members and a $2,000 “technology stipend.”  The district has countered with a lower offer. The union is also demanding another school year without teacher evaluations and suspension of district-assigned standardized tests.

    “The next few weeks will be critical,” Hulsizer said. “Districts need to reach agreements.”

    At the same time, there are signs that child infections from the delta variant may have peaked in some counties, including Los Angeles, perhaps foreshadowing an easing of the crisis, if not a sharp decline in quarantines and the demand for independent study.

    Ron Carruth, superintendent of the 7,000-student El Dorado Union High School District in Placer County, which has been walloped by the Caldor fire and the delta variant, reported Thursday that positive cases among staff and students had fallen by half from 70 cases three weeks ago.

    What hasn’t dissipated, he said, is a shortage of substitute teachers and other staff, including bus drivers.

    When the Legislature returns in January, Carruth, who chairs the superintendents’ council for the administrators association, said lawmakers should again reexamine the rules and funding for independent study, based on what happens to schools this fall.

    Zazueta was less explicit. “We will need to continue conversations with policymakers on how to work together to respond to the challenges that the pandemic is placing on our educational system,” he said. “There is no silver bullet that is going to resolve many of the fundamental issues schools are facing.”


  • 09/07/2021 4:24 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Covid testing was supposed to keep schools safe. What happened?

    Test shortages, inconsistent protocols are leaving parents confused and frustrated

    CORONAVIRUS

    SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
    CAROLYN JONES

    CREDIT: JESSICA CHRISTIAN / SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE / POLARIS

    Students throughout California, such as this Marin City second grader, are required to wear masks indoors while at school.

    As schools reopen, frequent Covid testing is meant to be a crucial tool in controlling virus outbreaks on campus. But so far, testing in many districts remains inconsistent and disorganized, leaving parents, teachers and administrators frustrated and doubtful of the tests’ effectiveness in keeping students safe.

    “None of it makes any sense. They’re sending kids home with a little sniffle or cough, and it could be a week or more before they’re allowed to come back,” said Kristy Llewellyn, a parent of three children in Temecula Valley Unified in Riverside County. “The kids are already so far behind. This just can’t go on for the rest of the school year.”

    Some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, test all students and staff weekly. The district even publishes a dashboard showing positive test rates in different areas of the district.

    But in other districts, the process has been spotty at best, and often relies on parents to find free testing sites and report positive results to their child’s school. Laboratories and clinics send positive test results to state and local public health agencies, but the results aren’t connected to specific schools because the student may have been infected anywhere, not necessarily at school, according to the state Department of Public Health.

    So, while the state and local health departments, and even many districts, maintain public dashboards of Covid cases, parents in some districts have no way of knowing if there’s an outbreak at their child’s school unless they’re contacted by contact tracers or school staff.

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    The result is often chaotic, leaving communities and parents ill-informed on whether infections are increasing.

    Dulce Fajardo, a mother of three in Oakland, said she’s frustrated with the testing, communication and quarantine procedures at her children’s school, a Spanish dual-immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified. Covid has hit her family hard, and she’s especially cautious about her children’s exposure to the virus. She and her husband would have enrolled their children in remote learning, but the district isn’t offering a dual-immersion option.

    “I know people at my kids’ school, so I have a good idea what’s going on, but a lot of parents don’t,” Fajardo said. “It’s scary, how many people wouldn’t know if there’s an outbreak. … My worry is that there’s not enough information for parents to make good decisions.”

    As part of school reopening guidelines, the California Department of Public Health and the Department of Education urged students and staff to undergo regular Covid tests, either through the school or at off-campus sites. More than $20 billion in state and federal funding is available for schools to conduct Covid tests and take other steps to reopen schools safely.

    Tests are meant to be part of a multipronged effort to curb the impact of Covid on campus and keep students in school. An indoor mask mandate, funds for upgraded ventilation systems, strong encouragement that everyone over age 12 be vaccinated, and quarantine plans are also part of the state’s overall safety guidance.

    GOING DEEPER

    The California Department of Education and Department of Public Health have provided guidelines for schools to keep students and staff safe during in-person learning. The guidelines cover testing, vaccinations, quarantine plans, ventilation, social distancing and cleaning. Here’s information related to testing guidelines:

    California Safe Schools for All

    California Covid-19 Testing Task Force: School Testing

    California Department of Public Health Covid Testing Guidance

    Updated Testing Guidance

    In Riverside County, liaisons at every school campus are supposed to help oversee testing, reporting and other Covid protocols. Schools are supposed to report positive test results to the county public health agency, which conducts contact tracing.

    “That’s the ideal. Does it always work? No,” said Michael Osur, assistant director of the Riverside County Department of Public Health. “Some schools are doing better at this than others. … We’re finding that it has to be a partnership between parents, schools and public health. Schools can’t do it alone. What’s good is that our goals are the same: to keep kids healthy and in school.”

    There are some advantages to keeping positive test results confidential at schools, said Preston Merchant, spokesperson for the San Mateo County Health Department.   The county publishes a dashboard showing Covid cases broken down by age, but no data is linked to specific schools.

    “If there are outbreaks, contact tracers need to work with school administrators, staff and student families in an environment of privacy and trust,” Merchant said. “We believe that not sharing data publicly about school outbreaks protects those relationships, encourages participation in contact tracing, and allows processes for testing, isolation and quarantine to be effective in preventing further exposure.”

    Shortage of Covid tests

    School testing is further complicated when students are in “modified quarantine” — allowed to attend school if they’re asymptomatic even though they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive. Students in modified quarantine must be tested twice a week. As infection rates increase, more students are falling into that category, leaving some areas with a shortage of tests.

    Students who participate in high-contact sports or other extracurricular activities must also undergo regular tests.

    In Fresno County, public health authorities are concerned that so many students and staff need regular tests, particularly rapid tests, that there won’t be enough. They’re urging schools to obtain extra PCR tests from the state, which are more accurate but take longer to process.

    “(Fresno County Department of Public Health) and the schools are very concerned about the shortage of testing,” said Dr. John Zweifler, a public health physician with the Fresno County Department of Public Health. “Because of the large increase in cases and in part due to increased demand related to school reopenings, rapid antigen tests are in shorter supply.”

    Another hurdle is contact tracing. Students who test positive are supposed to provide names and contact information for everyone who’s been within 6 feet since the student started experiencing symptoms. But sometimes students have been so many places — soccer practice, friends’ houses, birthday parties — that they don’t remember who they’ve been around, or know their full names or contact information. Some schools and public health departments have staff dedicated to helping with contact tracing, but in some areas the burden falls on parents.

    Some districts, such as Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified, have a “rapid response team” that will show up to a school within 30 minutes of someone showing Covid symptoms to administer testing, conduct contact tracing and make sure protocols are being followed.

    When someone tests positive, they are immediately isolated in one of the school’s “isolation spaces,” and the response team will determine whom they may have come into close contact with in the classroom. If the response team determines someone came into close contact with someone who tested positive, they will be isolated too, West Contra Costa’s disaster preparedness and safety consultant, Michael Booker, told the school board at an Aug. 25 meeting.

    Anyone with symptoms is required to either get tested at the school or by their health care provider, in line with state guidelines, Booker said.

    West Contra Costa’s contact tracing efforts during the first week of school were inconsistent, parents and teachers said. Angela Silver-Lima, a parent at Richmond’s Mira Vista Elementary, said at the board meeting that notifications and testing at the school appear to be haphazard.

    “Why do we have stricter protocols in place for lice than we do for Covid?” Silver-Lima said.

    Marissa Glidden, president of the district’s teachers union, said at the meeting that in several instances, teachers were not notified of potential exposures. One teacher didn’t find out she had been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid until that person texted her five days later, Glidden said.

    “This is simply unacceptable. Our educators deserve transparency at their workplace and expect the district to do all they can to keep everyone safe,” Glidden said. On Tuesday, the United Teachers of Richmond filed a complaint with Cal-OSHA against the district for failing to meet the state’s Covid Emergency Temporary Standards, which outline Covid safety requirements in workplaces.

    Surging infection rates

    But perhaps no area in California is experiencing more Covid upheaval than the rural northern end of the state. Shasta County, for example, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, and Covid rates have surged to their highest levels since the pandemic began. Schools are already closing due to Covid outbreaks and staffing shortages.

    Because schools in the region were open for in-person learning most of last year, district administrators thought this year would hold few surprises. They were wrong.

    “None of us expected what happened within the first week of school,” said Heather Armelino, superintendent of Enterprise Elementary School District in Redding, the county’s largest school district. “After 11 days of school, we had 126 positive cases and 1,300 students and staff in quarantine, which is about one-third of our district population. That was more cases than we had in total last school year.”

    As a result, the district decided to ease the burden on parents and conduct its own Covid testing on students. But with so many students in “modified quarantine” and needing two tests a week, the task was daunting.

    “Within a week of school starting, we were completely overwhelmed by the volume of testing needed for students,” she said, noting that tests may have been delayed and school staff struggled to keep up. “Although we have the option to send students home to quarantine for the 10 days, we have prioritized keeping students in class, and we didn’t want to give up on that goal.”

    All of this has affected staffing. With only a third of teachers fully vaccinated, the district is struggling to find substitutes for teachers who are ill or in quarantine at home. It’s offering incentives for teachers to get vaccinated and boosting pay for substitutes, but so far that hasn’t been enough. Two schools in the county have closed — Castle Rock Elementary and Anderson Middle — and many more are on the brink, said county Superintendent Judy Flores. So many students and teachers have been exposed that “modified quarantine” may no longer possible at some campuses, she said.

    “I hear that we have not reached the peak of this outbreak in our county,” she said. “I’m not sure how much longer some of our schools can stay open.”

    Llewellyn, the parent from Temecula Valley, sees the testing protocol in her children’s school as untenable. Children often contract colds and allergies, especially in the fall, and sending them home until parents can show proof of a negative Covid test is burdensome and inefficient, she said. All three of her children tested positive for Covid over the summer, and their symptoms were milder than a common cold, she said.

    “Wash your hands, sanitize, stay home if you’re sick — that’s all fine, that makes sense,” she said. “But this constant testing and being sent home, it’s frustrating for a lot of parents. It’s tough.”

    EdSource reporter Ali Tadayon also contributed to this story


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