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Test worries hang over education budget hearing

Free-floating test anxiety pervaded a Thursday legislative hearing on proposed K-12 spending for 2014-15.

Members of the Joint Budget Committee and other lawmakers weren’t taking a test, of course. They were worried about expansion of statewide testing and about the arrival of online tests over the next 18 months.

Online tests in science and social studies for selected grades roll out next spring, and online language arts and math tests in grades three and will land early in 2015. Eleventh-graders, who previously had to take only the ACT test, will be taking language arts and math as well under the new CMAS testing system – short for Colorado Measures of Academic Success.

The issue came up during the JBC’s pre-session hearing with Department of Education officials about the department’s proposed budget for 2014-15. The agency wants an additional $1.8 million for the 11th grade tests and an extra $1.3 million for the CMAS tests, the main parts of which are being developed by the PARCC testing consortium. (The current state testing system -TCAP- costs about $16 million a year, according to JBC figures.)

The department needs the extra $1.3 million because up to 50 percent of state students, scattered across the state, will have to take pencil-and-paper tests in districts or schools that don’t have the computers or bandwidth to give online tests.

All the changes prompted legislator fretting about too much testing for high school juniors, whether school districts will be ready for online tests and other issues. But the most interesting discussion was about paper vs. online testing.

Democratic Rep. Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, vice chair of the House Education Committee, wondered if students who have to take paper tests will be at a disadvantage.

“Human nature tells me … that districts that don’t have the resources to do it online are going to be thought of by their communities and their parents as being even further behind,” she said. “Kids these days, when they sit in front of a computer to take a test — I believe they will take it more seriously.”

CDE officials said their goal is to have as many students as possible take at least some of the testing online.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, pushed the point a little harder, asking if kids who take online tests will have an advantage.

Testing chief Joyce Zurkowski was careful in her answer. “We are working very hard to be able to say the results are equal,” she said, noting that recent field tests of the online assessments showed that students seemed to be more engaged. “The computer-based assessment is more kid friendly.”

Wilson pressed a little harder, and Zurkowski said results probably will be most comparable if students who primarily receive paper-based instruction take paper tests, and student who receive a lot of electronic-based instruction take online tests.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, asked if it would be possible to students to choose which kind of test they want to take. “We haven’t given that a lot of consideration,” Zurkowski said.

Both Commissioner Robert Hammond and Zurkowksi warned that the testing transition won’t be trouble-free. “I’ve not seen too many online tests that have gone well in the first year around the country,” Hammond said, “This has to go right, but I fully recognize there will be bumps.”

Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of House Education, suggested the discussion wouldn’t end with Thursday’s chatter. “I think we’re going to start hearing a lot about assessments.”

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