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UPDATED: State Board delays action on testing waivers

Updated at noon to include information about a new motion to eliminate penalties to districts with low testing participation rates.

The State Board of Education voted 5-1 Wednesday to delay action on testing waiver requests it has received from 20 districts. The board also voted to end penalties for districts whose test participation rates fall below required levels because of parents opting out.

The practical effect of the first vote is that those districts will have no legal justification not to give tests as scheduled in March. The motion specified that the board will reconsider the waiver issue at either its next regular meeting in March, or a special meeting if members decide to call one.

Today’s delay keeps alive controversy and the confusion kicked off when the board voted 4-3 in January to allow districts to seek waivers from the first part of the state’s new language arts and math tests, due to be given next month.

That January motion, made by new Republican member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, directed education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers that applied for such exemptions. The motion passed despite cautions from Hammond and Department of Education staff that the two portions of the tests can’t be separated.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl also told the board in January it didn’t have the authority to grant waivers. Hammond said then he wouldn’t issue waivers until he’d received formal advice from the attorney general’s office. That advice came last week, when Attorney General Cynthia Coffman issued her formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the department have the legal authority to grant testing waivers. Such an opinion has the force of law, unlike Dyl’s informal advice.

Second resolution adds more complications

The board also created a new element of uncertainty Wednesday by passing a separate motion that seeks to exempt districts from any penalty if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in testing this spring because of parents opting out. The vote was 4-2.

As with the board’s original waiver vote in January, the vote’s legal effect is unclear. “This motion probably would violate the terms” in the state’s accountability agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, said Dyl.

“That does cause us a problem with the feds,” said Hammond, an issue that could “force me to ask for another opinion from the attorney general’s office.”

The federal NCLB law requires that all students in specified grades undergo annual testing in language arts and math. The federal government requires 95 percent participation and requires states to impose penalties on districts that fail to meet that threshold in two or more tests.

Colorado’s current penalty is a reduction in accreditation ratings for districts that don’t comply.

Explaining what would happen in light of the board vote, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said, “You’d have to submit an amendment to the feds … negotiate that amendment and see if they would approve it.” A possible amendment would propose a different penalty than loss of accreditation status.

Board members Durham and Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver argued for the motion. “We can’t hold districts liable for what parents want,” said Flores, hinting at the possibility of increased numbers of parents opting students out of tests this spring.

Durham argued that eliminating the current penalty is needed “so that pressure on parents hopefully will be eliminated.” He alleged that some districts and administrators put inappropriate pressure on parents to have students take tests.

The board’s one-hour discussion of testing waivers and the participation penalty was marked by some confusion.

Durham originally included the two ideas in a single motion. But chair Marcia Neal objected to that, as well as to voting on a motion that wasn’t available to members in writing.

Neal, participating by phone from Grand Junction because of a medical issue, was in and out of the conversation and didn’t participate in the two votes.

The discussion was marked by some tension, particularly between Durham and members of the attorney general’s staff.

At one point, after not getting the answer he wanted, Durham said to Dyl, “I’ll try one more time. It’s a yes or no question.”

Durham also complained that Colorado has become “bogged down in a regimen of testing” and criticized the attorney general’s office for not laying out a strategy for dealing with federal requirements.

He also scoffed at concerns that Colorado would lose federal education funding if it violates various requirements.

“I’ve yet to see” the federal government pull funding in such cases, he said.

Board is one voice in larger testing debate

The board’s January action was part of a broader backlash against state standardized testing that has united groups ranging from the Colorado Education Association to suburban parent activists to legislators from both parties.

There’s been rising concern about the amount of testing, particularly after 11th grade language arts and math tests were added, along with science and social studies tests for high school seniors.

Many teachers and administrators complain the new state school readiness and early-literacy assessments consume too much classroom time, and that giving this spring’s tests online will cut instruction time as students are shuttled back and forth to school computer labs to take tests.

And conservative critics object to the fact that the new tests are based on the Common Core State Standards, which they see as an infringement on state and local control of education.

Six testing bills already have been introduced in the 2015 legislative session. They range from a fairly simple reduction in testing to wide-ranging measures that propose to reduce testing and withdraw from the Common Core and the PARCC testing group.

Lawmakers face the same problem as the state board – current federal requirements leave states with limited options to reduce testing beyond a certain level or to give districts assessment flexibility.

The full legislative testing debate isn’t expected to develop until next month, but it’s widely assumed at the Capitol that lawmakers will approve some reduction in the amount of testing.

This spring’s tests

Here’s the rundown on the testing schools and students face this spring.

The first window – Districts can start giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades 3-11 on March 2. The so-called “testing window” remains open until April 3. An individual district has four weeks within which to schedule tests to accommodate computer availability and other needs.

The first part – The initial section of the language arts and math tests emphasize essay questions and other “constructed response” items that take longer to score. That’s why they’re given earlier.

The second window – Districts may test between April 20 and May 22.

The second part – Called “end of year” assessments, these tests are intended to assess student knowledge of what they’ve learned through the year and are mostly multiple-choice items that can be scored quickly. The ultimate goal of the new tests is to have results available before the school year ends, but that won’t happen this year.

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to 4th and 7th graders, and 8th graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28.

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for 3rd grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring.

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9 ¾ hours for 3rd graders, 10 hours in grades 4-5, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school.

Who wanted a waiver

As of Wednesday, 20 districts had applied for waivers. Most are small, but the list includes two larger suburban systems: Douglas and Jefferson counties. Many smaller districts used a sample resolution that had been circulated by the Rural Alliance, a group that advocates for the interests of small districts. Most districts asked for exemption from the first set of tests, but a few asked for broader waivers. They enroll more than 174,000 students, nearly 20 percent of the 889,006 students statewide.

Buffalo, Byers, Dolores, Dougco, Eaton, Elizabeth, Haxtun, Hayden, Jeffco, Julesburg, Kit Carson, Lone Star, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Weld RE-7 (Platte Valley), Weld RE-9 (Ault), Weld RE-10J (Briggsdale), Weldon, Wiggins and Wiley.

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