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Future state tests taking shape

If you have a third-grader in your home this year, you’ll probably be interested to know that your kid will face a new state test – social studies – in the second half of fourth grade. Seventh-graders also will take the brand-new test in the spring of 2014.

And fifth-graders and eighth-graders will see much different kinds of science tests that spring. The new social studies and science tests also will be given once in high school, although state officials haven’t decided in which grades.

Not only will the tests’ content be new, but the plan is for students to take them on computers.

Students in grades 3-10 will continue to take the annual TCAP tests in reading, writing and math next spring and in 2014, but that is set to change in 2015.

The changes are required by a 2008 law and a 2010 decision by the State Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Paper-and-pencil science tests have been given in fifth, eighth and 10th grades for several years, but the social studies exam is new. All high school juniors will continue to take the ACT test.

The board was briefed on testing plans Wednesday by Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the Colorado Department of Education.

“Our intention is to go online with both the science and the social studies tests in the spring of 2014,” Zurkowski told the board.

Online tests have been a CDE goal for some time, but some school districts are concerned about whether they have the equipment and bandwidth necessary to make online tests work.

Zurkowski said, “We need to make sure our districts are going to be able to administer them,” adding that CDE is surveying districts this fall about their technical capabilities and gaps.

The ratio of available computers to students “is going to be critically important,” she said. “We also will be looking at personnel” and their skills.

The new science and social studies tests will contain the familiar multiple-choice and “constructed response” (education jargon for “written answers”) questions – and more.

“What will be different will be simulations,” Zurkowsky said. She showed the board examples of animated questions. One showed a beetle that a student can rotate, measure with an on-screen ruler and magnify. A student answers questions about the insect by clicking check boxes with a pointer.

The new assessments will get trial runs next year. Zurkowski also said students eventually will get a look at the new kinds of question before they take the assessments for real.

The department is negotiating with Pearson Education, one of the nation’s largest testing companies, about supplying the new assessments, Zurkowski said. Another testing giant, CTB/McGraw Hill, has provided the TCAPs and the former CSAP system.

Beyond the TCAP, and more tests

Starting in 2015, the state is expected to begin using grade 3-11 reading/writing and math tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC, a multi-state group whose tests will be based on the Common Core Standards in English and math. The state board adopted those standards on a 4-3 vote in 2010, but some Republican members remain uncomfortable with the Common Core.

Zurkowski said the PARCC tests are expected to focus more on having students apply and demonstrate their knowledge and skills rather than merely answering factual questions.

The board also was briefed on a project to develop a bank of tests that can be used to measure student growth in subjects that aren’t covered by the statewide system of English, math, science and social studies tests. Such tests are needed because Colorado’s educator effectiveness law requires that half of every teacher’s annual evaluation be based on student academic growth.

Department staff told the board that the initial phase of the project – developing a list of tests aligned to state content standards – has been largely completed by groups of volunteer teachers and others who reviewed tests from around the country. Now department experts must figure out which tests can be used to accurately measure student growth.

The goal of the project is to create a bank of approved tests from which districts can choose.

Board member Debora Scheffel, R-6th District, said she feels the state board needs to take a close look at the proposed tests to make sure they’re aligned with state content standards and because of the high stakes for teachers.

“There are just a host of questions that are important to talk about,” she said.

“This is not perfection; it’s a process,” said board member Marcia Neal, R-3rd District. She said the CSAP “was a very poor test. This is going to be so much better.”

Testing has been a contentious issue in the legislature. A year ago, CDE and the board asked for $26 million to develop a full set of Colorado-only tests. But lawmakers provided only enough funding to work on the science and social studies tests, plus updating of some tests for special education students. The 2012 legislature also passed a law that basically forced CDE to join PARCC as a governing member. The department made that move, committing Colorado for now to using the group’s tests.

But that law contains an “escape clause” that could allow Colorado to withdraw from PARCC. That and likely debates over testing costs leave at least a bit of uncertainty hanging over future testing of Colorado students.

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