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Testing task force starts getting into the nitty-gritty

Testing task force meeting
Members of Standards and Assessments Task Force met with representatives of a group (left) who raised issues with the panel's lack of diversity.

The task force studying the state’s K-12 testing system gathered for a third time Monday and finally started surfacing some of the tough issues facing them as the panel tries to develop recommendations for the 2015 legislative session.

The first two meetings of the 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force, one in July and one in August, were taken up largely with informational briefings and organizational matters, producing little discussion of interest.

The clock is ticking for the group, which for now has four more full meetings scheduled before the Jan. 31, 2015, deadline for a report and recommendations on what’s probably the most contentious issue in Colorado education.

John Creighton, a task force member who sits on the St. Vrain Valley school board, suggested that the group needed to start discussing some key issues while it waits for a testing cost study and gathers public comment.

“We’re about halfway through our timeline,” Creighton said. “Given the amount of time we have together … do we think we want to have some of that conversation in parallel with public input and waiting for the studies?… I would suggest we need to move more rapidly.”

The task force kicked around a number of issues Monday but spent much of its time on the question of whether districts could be given greater flexibility in what tests they use.

(House Bill 14-1202, the law that created the task force, started out as a Republican bill to give districts significant testing flexibility. As a political compromise, the Democratic majority quickly amended into the task force study.)

Tony Lewis, a member of the Charter School Institute board, kicked off the discussion by raising the question of whether the state should be testing all students with standardized exams or if the state should use results of local tests for its purposes, primarily district and school accountability.

“I struggle with the state’s need for individual student assessment,” he said.

That prompted a dialog that hinted at the varying views of task force members.

“We don’t want 164 different versions of assessment,” cautioned Donna Lynne, chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. (Colorado actually has 178 school districts.)

Alana Spiegel, who represents the parent group SPEAK, said, “As a parent I do want 160-some different assessments. … As a parent I want less of a burden” of state tests.

Others were cautious about too much flexibility. State standardized testing has brought “significant value in highlighting achievement gaps,” said Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “We’ve had more significant discussions about gaps in the last 10 years than we had in the previous 50 years.”

Teacher Dane Stickney of Strive Prep Charter said, “I really do enjoy having that standardized testing data every year” for insights into his mostly low-income students. “I really worry about going to all-local testing.”

Dan Snowberger, Durango schools superintendent and task force chair, noted, “Rural districts don’t have the resources to devise a local system. There’s a lot of value to a state assessment system.”

Syna Morgan, chief academic officer for the Jeffco schools, said she wasn’t arguing for “all local” testing but that “There’s a feeling of overburden at every level” and that districts need some flexibility. “I’m for balance.” (Morgan previously was system performance officer for the Dougco schools. That district’s board last January passed a resolution urging districts be allowed to opt out of state testing requirements.)

Members also discussed what changes in testing could mean for the Colorado Growth Model, which tracks student academic growth based on multiple years of test results.

“To me growth is the true report card,” said Jay Cerney, principal of the Cherry Creek Academy charter in Englewood.

“Growth is very important,” said Stickney, and Jaeger said, “I’m still in a place where I feel the statewide assessment should measure growth.”

Monday’s comments could be taken as the opening statements in what will be a recurring debate as parent and some district representatives like Morgan urge more testing flexibility while education reform and business members urge caution. Other task force members seem to be somewhere in the middle.

“It’s a critical conversation, and I think it gave everybody a chance to learn a little bit about where we stand,” said Snowberger, summing up. “It’s only the beginning.”

“It is not that people want to radically change the assessments,” said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability officer for the Aurora schools. “There is a perception that testing has grown and mushroomed to be unmanageable.” What the legislature wants the task force to do, she said, is offer ways “that will bring the system back into balance.”

Task force make-up politely questioned

Later in the meeting, the task force met with representatives from a group named COAT (Community Organizations Aligning Together).

In a letter to legislators last month, the group wrote, “We are concerned about the lack of representation of organizations, and/or individuals who represent the leadership, strengths and experiences in communities of color. We feel very strongly that the appointed individuals, who will be making decisions that will impact the future of a large portion of the students in our state, should include representation from individuals of organizations that have well established and trusted relationships within communities of color.” (Read the full letter here.)

Task force members were appointed by five people – the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and the chair of the State Board of Education – and were supposed to represent various education interest groups. Fourteen task force members are white; one is Native American. Some 4.7 percent of Colorado students are black; 32.8 percent are Hispanic, based on 2013 state enrollment figures.

“How are those voices and that perspective to be brought” to the task force, asked Jennifer Bacon, a COAT representative who’s with Teach for America. She was among four people who spoke to the group.

Task force members were sympathetic to the group’s concerns while noting they didn’t appoint themselves. Snowberger said he would talk to legislators about the possibility of adding an ex-officio minority member to the group and having that person formally added to the task force after the legislature convenes in January.

That issue led into a broader discussion of whether the task force is set up to get a wide enough range of public comment about testing. (Morgan said she was concerned that parents of all kinds might not be able to express their views. “Numerous groups” want their voices heard, she said.)

The task force agreed to look into setting up additional roundtable-type meetings, perhaps outside the Denver area, as a way of getting more public views.

The group already has set up an email address for public comment – 1202taskforcefeedback@gmail.com – and is working to set up an online survey. (Read the comments received to date here. Most are critical about the current testing system.)

The task force isn’t completely under the radar. Monday’s meeting at the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce attracted an audience of more than three dozen, including education lobbyists, CDE and legislative staff, parent activists and others.

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