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State Board blows up science, social studies test scores

The State Board of Education voted 4-3 Wednesday evening to reject the proposed cut scores needed to set proficiency levels on the 12th grade science and social studies tests given last fall.

The action means the Department of Education won’t be able to release district, school and student scores to school districts.

Cut scores are the benchmarks that sort a student’s results into one of four achievement levels. CDE had recommended cut scores that would have put only 1 percent of seniors taking the social studies test in “distinguished command,” the highest level of achievement. Only 9 percent would have been rated with “strong command.” The percentages for science were 2 percent distinguished command and 17 percent strong command. (See department proposal.)

Similar low achievement levels for last spring’s elementary and middle school science and social studies tests were recorded because of high cut levels (see story). The board, with slightly different membership, approved the recommended cut scores for those two tests.

Debate before the vote was heated at times as members clashed on the motion to reject.

“The test is fundamentally unfair,” said Republican board member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs. He made the motion to reject the cut scores.

“You can’t get past the fundamental problem these are going to be used as a demonstration of failure for our education system,” said Durham. “For some schools we have set an impossible barrier.”

But rejecting the cut scores was “just devastating to me,” said board chair Marcia Neal, a Grand Junction Republican, noting the years of standards-setting and work that led up to the tests. “I just think this is a terrible step backwards, and I’m sorry to see us take it.”

Referring to the new board members, Neal said, “You’re wanting to redo six years of State Board work because you’re smarter than we were.” Shortly afterwards she apologized for that remark. (Neal is starting her second six-year term.)

Republican member Deb Scheffel of Douglas County questioned the whole process that led to the proposed scores, calling them “very arbitrary cut scores.”

Durham also was dismissive of the panel of teachers and other experts who proposed the cut scores, saying “I’d rather the first 100 people in the Denver phone book set these cut scores. I have no reason to believe there is any validity whatever” in the process that created them.

Durham rejected two suggestions from CDE staff to delay the vote so they could figure out what to do next.

Asked by Chalkbeat about what’s next, education Commission Robert Hammond said, “We’ll have to think this thing through.”

The decision was the last item considered during a long, often chaotic meeting which saw members hopscotching around their agenda and running behind schedule all day.

The vote was third bombshell dropped by the board since two new members joined in January. That month a divided board voted to allow districts to seek waivers from parts of state testing. (Something that since has been declared illegal.) In February the board voted to exempt school districts from any penalty if student test participation is below required levels.

Wednesday’s motion was supported by what appears to be the board’s new majority – Durham, Republicans Scheffel and Pam Mazanec of Douglas County and Democrat Val Flores of Denver.

Democrats Jane Goff of Arvada and Angelika Schroeder of Boulder voted no, as did Neal.

Durham and Flores are the new members. Flores, who won the primary last year against a candidate heavily backed by Denver education reform groups, has quickly emerged as the wild card on the board.

The vote sent a ripple effect through the education world. Informed about the vote by Chalkbeat, one veteran education lobbyist simply replied “OMG!”

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