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Jeffco board reverses course on early-childhood assessment

The conservative majority of Jeffco Public Schools’ board of education on Thursday revised a previous decision to halt the district’s use of an early childhood education assessment linked to millions of dollars in preschool funding.

But it wasn’t a full retreat.

Jeffco receives more than $5 million from the Colorado Preschool Program to cover tuition for the suburb’s most at-risk students. The money is conditioned, in part, on the district assessing toddlers and providing that data to the state to measure the effectiveness of the program. The district is also required, under federal law governing free preschool children with disabilities, to assess their students.

The assessment under contention in Jeffco, TS GOLD, is one of two approved assessments that districts may use to send the state the information it requests. It requires preschool teachers to assess more than 30 different indicators of education readiness, capture data through pictures, video and work samples, and provide parents with an individualized learning plan for their students.

Critics fear the assessment is taking too much time from classroom instruction and have raised concerns over student privacy policies. Additionally, they argue that the mandate of assessing children — at any level — for state and federal purposes irks those who believe that decision is best left to local school boards and school leaders.

At its Dec. 12 meeting, the board halted the use of TS GOLD at the preschool level, putting in jeopardy the preschool funding. The December decision also ended the phasing-in of the assessment in kindergarten classrooms. (By the fall of 2015, all Colorado kindergarten classrooms will be required to use either TS GOLD or another assessment pending state approval.)

But after last night’s 3-2 vote, the district will continue to narrowly use the assessment as mandated. And the free preschool program for about 1,500 toddlers is safe. The board’s action last night did not reinstate the use of the program in kindergarten. It also required the district tp seek a waiver from the assessment.

“We’re simply dealing with a compliance concern that was raised,” said board president Ken Witt after the vote. “We’re going to pursue a waiver with the state that would imply, ‘I do not want to do this, but [we] feel we’re required to at this time.’”

The board’s minority — Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman — opposed both the original decision to end the use of TS GOLD and Thursday’s decision to reinstate it on a limited basis.

“The bottom line,” Dahlkemper said, “[is] no strings attached.”

She fears the board’s action is a slippery policy slope.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “Once you start going down the road of a waiver, it raises lots of red flags for me.”

Jefferson County parents were equally divided.

“Some families are worried about privacy,” said Darcy Wood, who attended the meeting flanked by a group of parents who support the district’s use of TS GOLD. “We respect their right to opt out of assessments as they see fit. But we’re in. We want our children’s learning, center stage. We want it accounted for — demonstrated, celebrated and used to move students forward.”

Wood said she believes the results of the assessments make classroom time more custom and informed.

“At another preschool, our children’s teachers feel it helps them plan activities and tells where children are developmentally,” she said. “They feel the work is worth the information they get fro their children.”

But Sunny Flynn, and another group of parents, fear data collection like TS GOLD could have dangerous repercussions.

“TS GOLD has a de facto monopoly,” Flynn said. “They’re creating a very powerful database. And before we move forward, our privacy policies need to catch up.”

Flynn was also concerned about classroom time being taken away while teachers “run around with an iPad” trying to collect a myriad of data.

“Our teachers need to be nurturing and teaching our kids,” she said. “Our children are not guinea pigs.”

Both sides of the argument did agree on one thing: regardless of the board’s decision, lawsuits are likely to follow.

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