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Colorado crosses its fingers and starts taking the tests

Screenshot from CDE informational video on new tests.
Screenshot from CDE informational video on new tests.

With computer mouse in hand, hundreds of thousands of Colorado students will click through new online language arts and math tests this month. Just the prospect of the new exams has fueled unprecedented levels of anxiety and controversy for more than a year, but now it’s game time.

Testing began Monday for about half the state’s students, in districts that began their assessments a week early.

The Department of Education reported Tuesday evening that 130,800 students started tests on Tuesday. A total of 40,730 tests were completed Monday and Tuesday. Language arts tests are given in three sessions, and math in two, and students don’t necessarily take a whole test in one day, accounting for the difference between tests started and tests finished.

“While there have been isolated issues that districts have experienced, the testing technology overall has been meeting the demands of Colorado and the multiple states currently testing,” said Janelle Asmus, CDE’s spokeswoman.

Legislators, policymakers, parents, teachers, and students have been debating for months whether to change the new testing system, known as CMAS, before it fully launched. That wasn’t a realistic prospect, and it didn’t happen.

So the testing experience this spring for students and adults, and the ultimate test results (not available until late this year or early 2016), will provide fresh grist for debate well into next year.

As schools and families brace themselves for the new tests, here’s a refresher on what the new assessment system looks like and what may happen as the testing debate continues beyond this school year.

This spring’s tests

Districts got a taste of online testing last spring with social studies and science tests in some grades, plus sample language arts and math tests in some schools.

“The addition of the English language arts and mathematics assessments to the CMAS assessment system will stretch districts in terms of their ability to assess online this spring,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s executive director of assessment.

Language arts and math tests were developed by PARCC, one of two multi-state testing groups, and are based on the Common Core State Standards. Science and social studies tests are Colorado-only exams. All the tests were developed by Pearson, the multinational testing company.

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 because they aren’t machine gradable. Those are the tests that started this week. Starting in eighth grade, students are assigned different math tests depending on which classes they’ve taken.

The first “window” – Some districts started giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades three through 11 Monday. 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 scheduling and administrative needs.

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.

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

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to fourth and seventh graders, and eighth graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28. There are a variety of other, special tests given to some English language learners and to students with special needs. (See the full testing schedule here, and get more details on state-required tests here.)

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9¾ hours for third graders, 10 hours in grades four and five, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school. The system allows for accommodations for students who may need extra help.

Costs – The cost to the state is estimated at $36.8 million for all of this spring’s tests, not just PARCC, or about $42 per student. Some $7.7 million is covered by federal funds. There’s an additional $8.1 million in local costs to administer state tests, but that doesn’t count such things as redirected staff time. (The cost estimates come from a study done last November for the Standards and Assessments Task Force.)

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for third grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring. Some districts are using a combination of paper and online tests.

There’s been a high level of district anxiety about technology over the past two years as the new tests loomed. Districts have responded in different ways, but most seem ready for online testing.

Opting out

The expansion of state tests into the 11th and 12th grade, fears about the new online tests, and worries about tests eating into instructional time have sparked a testing backlash among some parents and teachers.

Discontent bubbled to the surface last fall, when some high school seniors boycotted science and social studies tests. The boycotts were concentrated in a few districts, but those actions drove statewide student participation in the tests to 83 percent. (Districts that drop below 95 percent participation on two tests can have their accreditation ratings lowered.)

Some parent activists are predicting a significant increase in opt outs this spring, and that concern prompted the State Board of Education to pass a resolution that seeks to protect districts from the impact of parents opting out. The resolution means students whose parents take them out of tests won’t be counted when the participation rate is calculated. (That exemption apparently doesn’t apply to students who boycott tests on their own.)

What’s next

Scores on the language arts and math tests won’t be available until late in the year of early in 2016. That’s because cut scores need to be set to determine students where students fall into the new proficiency categories of “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.” (Those replace the old CSAP/TCAP categories of “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory.”)

The percentages of students scoring as distinguished or strong will be lower than those who were proficient or advanced under the old system. Why? The new tests are unfamiliar, and they are intended to be harder. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about scores on last spring’s science and social studies test scores.)

At the Colorado General Assembly, lawmakers still are dancing around what to do about testing. The best guess is that the legislature will pass a bill that cuts the amount of testing, most likely by eliminating current tests in ninth, 11th and 12th grades.

Testing also is in play in Washington, D.C., where various proposals circulating Congress would ease requirements for annual testing, allow more flexibility in use of district tests to meet state requirements, and make other changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

If Congress ultimately loosens current federal requirements, the 2016 legislature could have more flexibility to change Colorado’s testing system.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports on the roll out of Colorado’s testing system. Check back for more coverage through the spring.

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