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Work begins on the new CSAPs

Colorado students will have to face CSAP tests for two more years, but work already has started on replacing the familiar and much-debated testing system.

Ken Turner, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, told the State Board of Education Wednesday that some of the first concrete steps toward a new testing system will be taken within a month, when the department convenes a committee of educators, business representatives and others to start helping shape a new system of tests.

The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids school reform program requires the state board to adopt a new testing system by December 2010. The board is scheduled to adopt new state content standards by this coming December, so new tests will be needed to measure student proficiency in meeting new standards.

The CAP4K law also calls for new kinds of assessments to measure the school readiness of young children and how prepared high school students are for college or the workforce. Under the law’s detailed schedule, use of new tests begins in 2012.

Turner told the board, “We recently realized … these efforts [new standards and new assessments] are not serial; they overlap.”

In order for the board to make a decision in December 2010, Turner said a formal request for proposals to testing companies will have to be ready no later than June 2010, and perhaps as early as March.

Here’s the rough schedule Turner outlined for the board:

The “stakeholders” committee will convene within a month. The panel of 20 to 25 is intended to be similar to the one that has advised the standards process. The same outside consultant, WestEd, that helped with standards review also will be advising the department on assessments.

In October or November the department will do a survey in an effort to determine the capacity of the state’s 178 school districts to do online testing.

In November the committee and department will refine “design features” – the desired key characteristics of new tests – and those will be shared with the state board in December.

The test design features will be refined in January, and final work on the request for proposals will be done in February and March.

The department also is going to study how Colorado’s testing system compares with those of other states.

The ability to administer tests online will be a crucial question in design of a new system.

Many in the education community hope that a new testing system will take up less student time and provide results more quickly. (CSAP tests now are given in the early spring, but results aren’t available until the following autumn.) Some experts believe that administering tests online could meet such concerns.

The tough question, Turner said, is “How viable is that idea?” There’s wide variation in the computer equipment available to districts, and broadband Internet access is spotty in parts of the state.

That’s why CDE will be doing the statewide capacity analysis. Turner also said it may be possible to phase in online testing, with some districts administering the tests online and others initially giving tests in some other electronic format, such as on local servers or laptops.

The cost of a new testing system also will be an issue.

“The upfront development costs are enormous,” Turner said. Education Commissioner Dwight Jones also noted, “The initial startup costs will be substantial,” but added he hopes those costs can be covered by federal Race to the Top funds – if Colorado is a winner in that competition.

Interviewed later, Turner said it’s difficult to estimate the cost of a new system but mentioned $80 million as an upper limit. (Included in the CAP4K process is a detailed, professional study of what all elements of the program will cost, including testing. CDE expects to select the consultant for that study within a few weeks.)

Turner noted there likely would be additional costs for some districts to gain the technical capability for online testing.

The current annual cost of the CSAPs is roughly $18 million. Jones said the hope is that number “could be reduced substantially” with a new system, particularly with an electronic system.

“You might have operating costs that are lower than at present,” Turner agreed.

Straws in the budget whirlwind

The board Wednesday got the usual bad news about state budget prospects – along with one tidbit of hopeful news about local property tax revenues.

Vody Herrmann, director of public school finance, reported that school districts could see a net cut of $60 million in state aid in the 2010-11 budget year, based on her understanding of what the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting is thinking.

State officials are expecting a .4 percent inflation rate will be factored into the Amendment 23 school funding formula for 2010-11. Along with A23’s 1 percent bonus, that would mean a 1.4 percent overall increase. (The state supplies about $3 billion a year to school districts.)

Herrmann indicated OSPB is considering taking a $200 million cut from the total dictated by the formula, which would yield the $60 million net cut. But, she said, “It could go beyond that.”

The good news that Herrmann brought was that “it appears that many of the districts are experiencing higher-than-expected growth” in property tax revenues.

That’s important because the state school finance system requires the state to cover any declines in local revenue. If local tax collections are up it could ease the pressure on the state budget next year.

“We’re just anxious to get those numbers in to see if the property tax will make things a little better,” Herrmann said.

Board member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, noted that good news might be short-lived, because current taxes are based on assessments done before the recession hit. Revenue could drop after the next round of assessments.

“We’re going to have another cliff coming up,” Schroeder said.

Herrmann also said the department is trying to get an early handle on statewide enrollment. School districts count their students in early October, and the state usually doesn’t have an enrollment count until December, after the numbers are processed and checked. Enrollment is key to school finance because it’s also part of the A23 formula.

If an informal department tally indicates enrollment might be lower than was projected when the state budget was approved last spring, that could mean savings in 2009-10 and less pressure on K-12 spending for 2010-11.

Robert Hammond, deputy commissioner, added that OSPB might be looking for $13 million in cuts to various CDE programs, primarily those supported by the State Education Fund. But, “It seems like a lot is still up in the air” with the budget, he concluded

The next formal state revenue forecasts will be released Sept. 1, and the executive branch will submit its 2010-11 budget to the legislative Joint Budget Committee on Nov. 2. Gov. Bill Ritter has publicly warned that the administration will tightly interpret A23 and that K-12 funding should expect cuts in 2010-11.

Miscellaneous notes

Waivers approved for teacher-led school

The board voted 6-0 to approve waivers from various state laws and regulations for the new Math and Science Leadership Academy in the Denver Public Schools.

The 142-student school, a brainchild of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, is entirely run by its teachers. So, it required waivers from state requirements about principals and evaluation of teachers.

“This was a dream of ours to create our own school,” said bilingual kindergarten teacher Kim Ursetta, a former DCTA president. “This school is one of a kind in the country.”

Board member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, referring to teacher-led schools elsewhere, called the effort a “great idea, hard to do … good luck to you.” DeHoff is a longtime charter school advocate.

“It’s really encouraging that a union-led school would be modeling a different way of teacher evaluation,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat whose first district includes DPS. The school’s teachers will evaluate each other.

Stimulus paperwork

Nina Lopez, director of stimulus programs for CDE, reported that the department is about done reviewing district and local authority plans for use of the federal stimulus funds earmarked for Title I and IDEA (special needs students) programs. About $260 million is involved.

Lopez said final approval of Title I documents is expected by the end of the month while IDEA applications will be done sooner.

Go here for a quick look at the various stimulus programs and how much money Colorado might receive from each of them.

State Board meeting agenda and documents (click link at upper left for 9/09 meeting)