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SBE crosses fingers on new tests

The State Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday to seek bids for a new state testing system to launch in 2014 – even though there’s no money budgeted yet for the estimated $25 million cost.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond basically told the board that the process of seeking vendor proposals for the CSAP replacement needs to get going if the state is the meet the 2014 deadline, even though it isn’t clear now if Gov. John Hickenlooper will support spending the money or if the 2012 legislature will come up with it.

Colorado Department of Education

Colorado Department of Education

Earlier in the packed day-long meeting, the board gave its informal approval to Hammond and his staff to go ahead with an application to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. The state department wants to use Colorado’s school accountability and rating system instead of NCLB’s adequate yearly progress requirement for schools. Schools currently are evaluated under both systems.

Those issues were just two of several important items on the agenda during a long and sometimes-disjointed meeting that stretched to about nine hours.

Next test plans squeezed by time and money

The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program required creation of new state content standards, which has been done, and implementation of a new assessment system to test students on those standards in reading, writing, math and science. The board last year added social studies to the list of tests.

The current schedule calls for new tests to launch in the spring of 2014 after two years of “transitional” tests. The last “old” CSAPs were given this past spring.

The legislative passed CAP4K without providing funds for its implementation, and since then the weak economy has squeezed state revenues, forcing cuts in K-12 spending.

The Department of Education has asked the Hickenlooper administration to include about $25 million for development of the new system in its proposed 2012-13 budget.

“We often feel we’re between a rock and a hard spot,” Hammond told the board. The new standards will “never drive achievement unless we have a fully robust assessment system,” adding, “If we don’t do this right” the state’s whole education reform program “starts failing.”

The state new accountability and rating system, passed in 2009 and launched last year, and the 2010 education evaluation law both depend heavily on student test scores and the growth in scores over time.

“If we don’t have the funding this year, it will automatically be three years of transition” tests, Hammond said. “We may be forced into that position because the legislature may not have the money.”

Hammond also noted that proposed multi-state tests in language and math won’t be ready until 2015 at the earliest. And use of those tests would save the state only a modest amount of money, given that Colorado still would need to develop its own tests in science and social studies and perhaps writing.

The board chewed over the issue during two parts of Wednesday’s meeting, finally voting to let CDE staff go ahead and issue a request for proposals to test-development companies. Member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, was the only no vote, saying she thought that because of the uncertainties the decision should be delayed until the board’s October meeting.

“I don’t feel we’re quite ready yet,” she said.

The governor’s proposed 2012-13 budget will be released Nov. 1, the Joint Budget Committee usually makes it recommendations in March and the full legislature probably won’t pass a 2012-13 budget until late April or even early May.

State will go for NCLB waiver

The key element of CDE’s waiver would allow the state and school districts to use only the state system of accrediting and rating schools and districts. Districts currently are rated using both that system and the NCLB system.

The state system relies significantly on student academic growth over time and has the goal of all students being proficient by 10th grade and college and workforce ready by high school graduation. The NCLB system rates the adequate yearly progress of schools, focusing on annual test scores, and has the goal of all students being proficient by 2014.

The Colorado application also is expected to include a request for more flexibility in using federal funds to help a broader range of struggling schools and more flexibility to use federal money for programs to improve educator effectiveness.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a process through which states could seek waivers. Many state have gotten restive about NCLB requirements and about Congress’ failure to update the law.

Pat Chapman, CDE federal programs administrator, said that having to use two systems now means districts and schools have to meet two different sets of criteria that sometimes yield conflicting ratings that have different consequences and timelines.

“That sends mixed messages to parents, educators and students,” he said, calling the current situation “a waste of money and a waste of time.”

He and Hammond both maintained that the state accountable system is more rigorous than the federal one, and Chapman called the state system “much more nuanced and more reasonable.”

“I think you have an excellent plan,” said board member Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, and other board members also voiced their support.

Under the current timetable, Colorado will submit its application in late October and could learn by the end of the year if its waiver is granted.

CDE slides explaining the waiver application

In other action

The board also spent a lot of time on information items, some of which will reappear as decision items at meetings later this year.

Red flag for online education

Members were briefed on a recent report about online education in the 2010-11 school year.

Discussion focused on one of the report’s findings: “When CSAP scale scores and proficiency levels (not proficient and proficient/advanced) between online programs and traditional education settings are compared, online students consistently lag behind those of non‐online students, even after controlling for grade levels and the following student characteristics: sex, race/ethnicity, English Language Learner status, Individual Education Plan status, and federal free and reduced lunch program eligibility.”

Berman asked why that’s the case, and consultant Dick Carpenter said, “I suspect it may be the population that takes advantage of online learning,” referring to at-risk students who haven’t been successful in other educational settings. But Carpenter and colleague Krista Kafter said they hadn’t done any in-depth research on that question.

“I’m very distressed” by the report, Berman said, because “I think this [online learning] is the wave of the future.”

Report on Colorado online education

Charter regulation proposals

The board also heard a presentation on recommendations from a committee that has been studying how to improve authorization and oversight of charter schools. That panel was formed by the 2010 legislature in the wake of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network scandals.

The board is expected to discuss the recommendations further at a later meeting, and the issue is expected to be the subject of proposed legislation during the 2012 session.

Evaluation illustration

Educator evaluation regs squeezed in

One of the key tasks facing the board this fall is approval of regulations for implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, which establishes new requirements for annual evaluations of principals and teachers.

The board held a public hearing on the issue Wednesday, will hold another in October and is supposed to vote in November. The final regulations have to be reviewed by the legislature next year.

The key issue that’s emerged over the rules is the degree of flexibility that districts should have in designing evaluation systems. The Colorado Association of School Boards has led the fight for flexibility, objecting to a CDE staff proposal that districts be required to “opt out” of a model state system. Some teachers who testified Wednesday urged as uniform a system as possible to make evaluations more easily transferable between districts.

CDE has modified its original proposal to more of an “opt in” model. CASB official Jane Urschel told the board, “Generally we’re quite pleased with the direction the proposed rules have gone” but said later she’s still evaluating the new language.

Board takes a break to think big

Also on Wednesday’s agenda was a report from the Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission, a group created by former education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

The report, grandly titled “Beyond Walls, Clocks and Calendars – Rethinking Public Education in Colorado,” details “a vision of the learning experience for students in ways that transcend the traditional school day and traditional classroom models, a vision for education in Colorado that is student-centered, reflective of the modern world and how it has advanced, a vision that uses student interests and experiences to drive teaching and learning.”

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and a member of the commission, acknowledged to the board, “We don’t have the financial resources to throw at what we’re trying to do” but added, “We really appreciate your very prompt attention to this.”

Read the report