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Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Students at Aurora’s Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

PARCC test scores set stage for more debate on Colorado education policies

Underwhelming scores on Colorado’s first PARCC exams surprised few and hardened longstanding positions among both supporters and opponents of the new tests, setting the stage for another round of debates over academic standards, testing and accountability.

The results released Thursday only provided state-level data. The release of district- and school-level scores in December will provide a much deeper look at student performance.

Those results — and how parents, school districts and others respond to them — likely will influence how state legislators and other policymakers approach key education issues next spring.

“I think the bottom line is that until we have an assessment tool and standards parents have confidence in, we’re going to continue to see high levels of opt out and a high level of opposition from students, parents and teachers that these annual assessments are suspect,” said state Sen. Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker and member of the Senate education committee.

This week’s release is a milestone in a multi-year effort to develop and enact tougher academic standards, introduce next-generation tests to see how students measure up, and use that data to evaluate teachers and school systems.

But those efforts have been circumvented by a lack of trust from vocal groups of families and teachers who believe the new standards and tests are eroding Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools.

Concerns about data collection and usefulness of the tests also have been flashpoints.

Additionally, the state’s superintendents, especially those in rural Colorado, have pushed back on the system. They claim the state hasn’t properly funded its schools and want to be measured by more than just state tests.

To address some of those concerns, the General Assembly passed testing reform legislation that reduced the number of tests in high school and limited the use of data in school accreditation and teacher evaluations for a year.

“It’s very clear to me that lawmakers, the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education are making a good-faith effort to understand and respond to the concerns of our larger community,” said Peter Hilts, the chief education officer of Falcon District 49 in Colorado Springs. “To me, that’s oxygen to re-establish credibility.”

But Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she believes even more parents will raise concerns after they receive individual results for their students.

“I think parents, despite the warning that these results are just a baseline, they’ll look at the results and lose confidence in terms of whether this is a good test,” she said. “Parents will look at the results and weigh whether it gives them valuable information on their students versus what they hear from their students and teachers.”

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of education advocacy groups, said while some parents might not like the results of the tests, that’s not a good reason to upend the system.

“Inevitably there will be people who use the scores to push back on the tests,” she said. “But we can’t get mad at the tests. Getting upset with the test itself is not going to change the outcome for kids.”

State officials speaking this week to the State Board of Education pointed to comparable results between PARCC and other tests — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth and eighth graders, and the ACT, given to 11th graders.

That “allows us to have confidence” in the PARCC scores, said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s executive director of assessments.

It’s too early to know how parent frustration or support will play out at the General Assembly next spring, especially during an election year.

But given the high opt-rates from last spring, school officials and lawmakers may find themselves in a precarious position next legislative session.

Some argue low participation demonstrates a lack of confidence in the system, and that it should be scrapped.

“I don’t think there is anything PARCC can do to [earn] my trust because I don’t believe in high-stakes test,” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who has pushed for more data privacy legislation and testing reform at the Capitol.

However, starting over with an entirely new testing system would cost millions more dollars the state doesn’t have and throw classrooms across the state into chaos.

“We need some time without upheaval and disruption,” Falcon 49’s Hilts said. “I think the system needs to stay at least one more cycle. We need to be able to connect two dots. I would rather work with a system I know, to optimize a system, than to change systems every two years.”

Given public support from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, PARCC isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. And there is enough support from the teachers union, the state’s superintendents and advocacy organizations to keep the Colorado Academic Standards in place, at least until 2018 when state law requires a review.

More immediately, battles likely loom over how tests are used to rate schools and evaluate teachers.

“We’ll see bills on that,” said state Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “… There are going to be bills this year to get rid of everything.”

Both the state’s school accreditation system and educator effectiveness law were passed with bipartisan support in 2010. There have been multiple attempts to overturn or seriously weaken both.

Kerr, who said he favors tweaks to both, cautioned: “We shouldn’t throw all the work we’ve done during the last four or five years out and start all over.”

Bills are also likely to propose changes on how the state measure schools and school districts, state officials and a group of rural schools already are working to find possible alternatives.

A Department of Education-convened committee already is exploring options. And more than a dozen rural school districts calling themselves the Rural Innovation Alliance will pitch a final version of an accountability system to the State Board of Education in December.

“We’re not running from accountability,” said Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo-Merino school district east of Greeley. “The system we’re creating is holding me more accountable than the old system. It includes multiple pieces of information rather than one assessment that kids don’t care about.”

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