Legislators quickly got into the weeds on testing Wednesday after receiving a new report on the issue, previewing future debates on the amount of testing, equity, parent opt out and a host of other issues.
The Standards and Assessments Task Force, created by the 2014 legislature, presented its final 25-page report to the House and Senate education committees Wednesday morning. The group is recommending significant cutbacks in high school testing and some reductions and streamlining of K-3 tests and evaluations. (See this article for more details on the recommendations and the links in the box below for the full report and appendices.)
Testing is expected to be the top education issue of the 2015 session. While the main recommendations of the task force report have been known for some time, the official release seemed to focus legislators’ attention and sparked nearly three hours of questions to and dialogue with task force members. The Capitol’s new second-floor hearing room was packed with a crowd of well over 100 for the report’s release, although the audience thinned considerably as the discussion wore on.
Here are some snapshots of the discussion on key issues.
Equity and tracking student progress
A key concern for some education interest groups is whether reduction of testing will make it harder to gather the annual data on student academic growth that reform groups say is necessary to track the progress of at-risk and minority students.
Several Democratic lawmakers asked about the issue.
Task force member Lisa Escarcega said, “There are other growth models out there” and that growth data is more important in earlier grades than in high school. She’s the chief accountability and research officer for the Aurora Public Schools.
“This discussion we’re having now is at the crux of the difficulty the task force was having,” said member Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “The question is what do we give up when we go down that road” of reducing testing.
Jaeger said while new ways of measuring growth through local testing systems are on the horizon, “We’re not there yet. … The challenge is that it is not a flip of a switch, it is a system change.”
High school testing
The task force recommends that mandatory state tests be eliminated in 11th and 12th grades, and part of the group wanted to eliminate 9th grade tests as well.
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, asked about that, saying, “It seems a little bit to me like turning off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter” and it’s important to have data on high school academic growth.
Task force chair Dan Snowberger said the group heeded public input on the issue, which was critical of high school testing. Snowberger is superintendent of the Durango schools.
In his opening remarks, Snowberger said, “The current system is hugely burdensome. … We’re hoping this report will give you traction to do something to reduce the pressure on our schools.”
John Creighton, a St. Vrain board member, said, “You try to take the one that makes the most sense to reduce,” and that was high school tests.
“I think there are valid arguments on both sides,” said Johnston.
State and local tests
The task force made no recommendations about local school and district tests, although Snowberger cautioned lawmakers about trying to limit local testing. “We want to recognize that as a local control issue.”
There were several lawmaker questions on the issue, and task force members emphasized the value teachers put on the usefulness of local tests in helping guide classroom instruction.
The task force’s recommendation to end all 12th grade tests would in effect eliminate that social studies test, but the group made no further recommendation on that exam. It was split on whether to continue or eliminate social studies tests in 4th and 7th grades.
Snowberger said, “All of us recognize that social studies has a high value” but in the overall context of testing he felt it was worth taking a “pause” on social studies. Creighton agreed.
The ability of parents to opt their children out of testing is a top concern for some parent groups and Republican legislators.
The task force recommended that the state create an accountability “timeout” for the 2015-16 school year in case significant numbers of students don’t take tests this spring. (Districts’ accreditation ratings can be lowered if fewer than 95 percent of students take state tests.) The group also recommended that the state provide clear information to parents about the impacts of opting out.
Bethany Drosendahl, a Colorado Springs parent, was the only task force member who dissented from the report and didn’t sign the document.
“Parents have a right to refuse. We are not asking for that right. We already have it,” she told legislators.
Drosendahl also said she supports broad district testing flexibility because it’s “the best way for accommodating the vast variety of individual learners.”
Snowberger said final agreement by the group went down to the wire, including lengthy conference calls last Friday and on Sunday evening, when Drosendahl indicated she couldn’t sign on to the final report. He added, “Until everyone signed this morning, I could not have told you everyone was in agreement.”
The task force’s recommendations are based on the conclusion, as the report puts it, that options for changing the system are “severely restricted by the current federal testing requirements.”
The group didn’t address the issue of what could be done if those requirements change until its second-to-the last meeting. “We just didn’t have time to come to consensus,” Snowberger said.
So the panel’s “long-term recommendations are questions,” as member Syna Morgan put it. She’s chief academic officer of the Jeffco schools.
She added, “We believe there is an opportunity to have common ground” on a future testing system that’s much more flexible for districts and students. “It’s going to be challenging, but we believe we can get there.”
Where lawmakers go from here
Five testing bills have so far been introduced in the 2015 sessions.
There are two Democratic bills in the Senate, one that would reduce testing to federal minimum requirements and one to cut back on social studies testing.
Three Republican bills in the House are more comprehensive and propose various combinations of testing cuts, a withdrawal from the Common Core State Standards and PARCC tests, and greater district flexibility in assessments.
Hearings aren’t likely until mid-February and there’s also talk of a bipartisan bill on testing only, although nothing definite has surfaced.
What others are saying
Education advocacy groups reacted quickly to the report. A group of nine reform and business-related groups led by Colorado Succeeds issued a statement saying, “Colorado’s students spend too much time taking tests, and our state needs to address this problem. … Legislators should respect the opinions of the experts who were entrusted with this task.”
Colorado Children’s Campaign CEO Chris Watney issued a separate statement, saying. “We believe the recommendations strike the right balance.”
And the Colorado Education Association issued a lengthy statement expressing teacher concerns about testing and – without details – calling for “testing solutions beyond task force recommendations.”
Union spokesman Mike Wetzel said, “Teachers, parents, and students want more than what was recommended today. Just as we worked with this task force, we’ll partner with legislators to explore what we can do together to lessen the testing burden and return time and resources to classroom instruction.”