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Cuts in state testing could have unintended consequences

Students taking tests Chalkbeat

Some testing critics have pushed for trimming Colorado’s K-12 tests back to only what’s required by the federal government, but making that move isn’t as simple as it sounds, the State Board of Education was told Wednesday.

While the overall impact wouldn’t be huge, reduction of testing could have ripple effects in the state’s system of rating districts and schools, causing some ratings to rise and other to drop.

For instance, the Boulder Valley schools would rise from “performance” to “distinction,” the highest level of the state accreditations system. But the Littleton schools would drop one level, to “performance.” And the Greeley district would drop one step from “improvement” to “priority improvement,” the second lowest level.

Overall, 11 districts would receive higher ratings and 28 would decline. Ninety-nine schools would get higher ratings while 97 would drop. (See the slides at the bottom of this article for the full list of theoretical district changes, plus information on how ratings for individual schools might shift.)

The conversation was prompted by the release of the 2014 TCAP results, which started a lively SBE discussion on testing at its August meeting (see story). Members asked Department of Education staff to return in September with more information on questions like what would happen if Colorado scaled back its testing system to only what is required by federal law.

Colorado imposes more tests on public school students than are required by federal law, which basically calls for language arts and math tests in 3rd through 8th grade, plus once between 10th and 12th grade. Science tests are required once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But Colorado requires additional tests in high school and three social studies tests during a student’s career, plus ACT tests for all high school juniors, school readiness and early literacy assessments or evaluations. (See this CDE document for a full comparison of state and federal requirements.)

Test results are fed into the complicated state calculations of student performance, academic growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates and graduation rates that are used to generate district and school ratings. So changing the test results could lead to ratings changes.

CDE staff used 2013 test results to do a simulation of how use of results from only federal requirements would affect accreditation ratings. (See these slides for CDE’s full presentation to the board.)

The exercise was a theoretical one, partly because the state testing system will change significantly next year, when the new PARCC tests in English language arts and math are given in all schools. And the workings of the accreditation system are due for review in 2016.

“It could look very different under the new CMAS system,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis. (CMAS is the acronym for the new system that is replacing the TCAPs.)

But even a simulation can be sensitive, given the importance district leaders place on their ratings. As a precaution, CDE emailed every superintendent earlier this week, informing them of the exercise and stressing that it was only a simulation.

“This was a simulation … this is not something we’ve said we’re doing,” stressed Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen.

But, he said, it was important to do the exercise because, “It took us a long time to get the system we currently have. … It needs to be a thoughtful discussion about moving pieces to make sure people don’t see unintended consequences.”

Owen also said the department has queried the U.S. Department of Education about another issue of testing concern – whether results from individual district tests could be used to meet federal requirements.

“We did not get the information” in time for Wednesday’s meeting, Owen said, promising to have details of DOE’s response for the board in October.

CDE Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski did have one piece of concrete testing news for the board. She said the department has determined it has sufficient funding to allow districts that choose to do so to give next year’s PARCC math tests on paper rather than online. It also will be possible for districts to give third graders both the math and language arts tests on paper if they choose.

Surveys done for the department earlier this year found some concerns about third graders taking online tests, and about online math tests because students in many schools do math work with pencils and paper. (Learn more about those survey results here.)

State board members are split on testing issues, and where they go from here is somewhat unclear. Members Wednesday mentioned possibly including recommendations in the board’s 2015 legislative priorities (which members will begin discussing next month) and making recommendations to the State Standards and Assessments Task Force, an appointed group that is studying the issue and which is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature in January.

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