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Testing task force closing in on recommendations

Testing task force chair Dan Snowberger (left) makes a point while John Creighton and Lisa Escarega listen.
Testing task force chair Dan Snowberger (left) makes a point while John Creighton and Lisa Escarcega listen.

The advisory panel assigned to make recommendations about reform of the state testing system will take a last cut at its suggestions Monday, but the shape of the group’s thinking on key issues firmed up during an all-day session Friday.

Members of the Standards and Assessments Task Force tentatively support rolling back tests recently added in the 11th and 12th grades and streamlining the assessments and evaluations used to determine school readiness and student reading ability. The group didn’t reach agreement on what to do about Colorado’s new social studies tests.

“I think we’ve got to acknowledge that the overall package of testing is overwhelming,” task force chair Dan Snowberger said as the group began its Friday session. Snowberger is superintendent of schools in Durango.

The group wrestled a bit with the issue of what – if anything – can be done about the online language arts and math tests scheduled to be given in the 3rd through 11th grades this spring. Those tests from the PARCC assessment group are based on the Common Core State Standards and will be given in two parts, one in March and one near the end of the school year.

“I think we’re all saying the concrete’s been poured for the spring,” suggested member John Creighton, a St. Vrain school board member who led much of Friday’s discussion.

Other members seemed to accept – some of them grudgingly – that this year’s tests can’t practically be changed or reduced. But the group did agree that there should be a one-year timeout in state ratings of schools to avoid schools or districts being penalized if significant numbers of students opt out of this spring’s tests.

Substantial numbers of high school seniors in a few districts boycotted science and social studies tests last fall. Leaders of parent activist groups are predicting similar boycotts this spring. Both state and federal rules require at least 95 percent participation on standardized tests, and schools and districts that drop below that level risk having their state ratings downgraded.

The panel also agreed that if a ratings timeout is approved, the state needs to provide clear, factual information to districts and parents on what that means.

Faced with mounting teacher and pubic concern about assessment, particularly the amount of testing, the 2014 legislature created the task force and assigned it to come up with recommendations for the 2015 session. The group convened in mid-July, but its work has moved slowly, partly because of philosophical differences among the 15 members, who represent a spectrum of education sectors and interest groups. Friday’s meeting was added to the group’s schedule after little progress was made at a December session (see story).

The task force is scheduled to present its final report to a joint session of the House and Senate education committees on Jan. 28. Some legislative leaders want to delay debate on a testing bill until after the panel’s report is done, but lawmakers are chomping at the bit to get at the issue. Nearly two-dozen draft bills on the issue reportedly are being prepared by legislators.

Before the group started working through proposed recommendations Friday, Creighton said, “There is a desire among the group, where there is common ground, to speak with one voice. [But] common ground doesn’t mean 100 percent agreement. … What are the recommendations to reduce the burden that we can all live with?”

So the group reached its preliminary recommendations Friday by member assent – or lack of dissent – and without taking formal votes. Here are the highlights:

  • Eliminate 12th grade state tests, which currently include science and social studies.
  • Eliminate the recently added 11th grade state tests in language arts and math but allow individual districts to continuing giving them as an option, with the state covering the costs. The same would apply to 9th grade tests in those subjects, which have been given for several years.
  • Continue giving language arts and math tests in 10th grade to meet current federal requirements.
  • Continue giving a college entrance exam (currently the ACT) to all high school juniors.
  • Fulfill the requirement for one high school science test by – if possible – using an expanded ACT or similar test rather than the current separate test.
  • Change the frequency and intervals of school readiness evaluations for kindergarteners and of literacy assessments of young students up to 3rd grade.
  • Provide districts more options for giving the PARCC tests on paper instead of on electronic devices.

Task force members didn’t really discuss the issue Friday but previously suggested no changes to the current schedule of language arts, math, science and social studies testing in the 3rd through 8th grades.

“There’s absolutely no way we can do anything about three through eight,” said member Syna Morgan, chief academic officer for the Jeffco schools.

Early in the meeting members kicked around the burden of local testing, but the group appears unlikely to make recommendations in that area.

“What the legislature has most control over are state assessments … so we want to speak about where they have the most authority,” said Creighton.

People who’ve been pushing to change Colorado’s testing system have been frustrated by federal testing requirements that make it risky to trim the state system too much lest federal funding be put in danger.

However, federal requirements may be loosened by the new Republican-majority Congress, so the task force also is discussing broader, future testing reform in Colorado. Morgan and Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability officer for the Aurora schools, presented a proposed plan to the group Friday. Among other things, it basically would require students to be tested in only one subject a year. The group discussed that idea for awhile and will return to it in more detail Monday.

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