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Commissioner Crandall wants Colorado to rethink everything from tests to teacher recruitment

A sixth-grader in Sheridan takes part in a PARCC practice session in March 2015. Craig F. Walker/Denver Post

Colorado education chief Richard Crandall wants to use newfound freedom from federal regulations to craft a long-term vision for the state’s education community.

And he wants Colorado to be one of just seven states that will be allowed under federal law to use on a trial basis vastly different math and English assessments than students are used to taking.

Crandall announced his intentions to the State Board of Education at its meeting Wednesday.

“The only reason I came to Colorado is because I believe Colorado has what it takes to be the No. 1 (education) state in the country,” said Crandall, who was hired as education commissioner in January.

But some board members were skeptical about Crandall’s plan to launch a string of community meetings to catalog what changes to Colorado’s education system parents and teachers would like to see.

The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, significantly decreases the role of the federal government in education. Under the law, which Congress passed in December, Colorado must outline how it will address everything from academic standards and assessments to school ratings and special education.

But Crandall wants to go above and beyond that. He said he wants to chart a path that unites the state’s school districts, advocacy organizations, teachers unions and parents behind some of the most controversial debates of the day, especially testing.

“The people of Colorado want a different assessment model,” he said. “More power to them. I do, too. I want a faster turnaround, (I want them to be) more relevant. Why wouldn’t we do the pilot?”

As part of the law, seven states will be granted a waiver from the current annual testing requirement. It’s unclear how much flexibility states will have to reimagine their testing systems that are linked to school ratings and, in some cases, teacher evaluations. But some experts suspect states will experiment with shorter and more frequent assessments.

Crandall said he is “95 percent confident” Colorado will be one of the seven states allowed to experiment with its testing system – in part because he doubts many will ask. But many hurdles stand in the way.

Colorado lawmakers might need to pass legislation allowing the state to enter the pilot program. There’s also no federal funding to help pay for such an experiment, meaning a state already strapped for cash would need to pay for it. Crandall also acknowledged there is a dearth of quality assessments the state could use if it was allowed to proceed.

“You just don’t whip (tests) out overnight,” he said.

Changes to the state’s testing system will be just one part of what could be a complete overhaul under the new federal law.

Crandall said he recognizes how difficult it might be to get the state’s urban, suburban and rural districts to agree on major policy shifts around standards or teacher evaluations — let alone Republicans and Democrats, education reform advocates and unions.

“It’s going to take us a while to get to a common state plan,” he said in an interview. “If we didn’t want to push the envelope, we could get people to agree to the easy stuff. But it doesn’t move the needle.”

His announcement comes as superintendents from some of the state’s largest school districts are calling for an overhaul to the state’s accreditation system. Metro-area superintendents wants to meet with Crandall and other officials from the education department in June to discuss possible changes.

Currently, schools and districts are rated based on results from state tests. Under the new federal law, that remains the case but a school’s rating also must factor in at least one non-academic measurement. States decide which measurement to use.

That will be one of many decisions the state will have to make between now and January when Crandall hopes to provide a first draft to the State Board of Education. The state likely will need to submit its plan to the U.S. education department by spring of 2017.

The plan, if approved, would go into effect during the 2017-18 school year.

Department officials will write the first draft of the plan after a string of community meetings that begin May 4 in Pueblo.

That didn’t sit well with board member Deb Scheffel, a Parker Republican, who said she thought state board members should weigh in first on such a strategic document. She also raised concerns that the so-called listening tours were just for show. Scheffel pointed to a conversation Crandall had with lawmakers earlier that day in which he outlined some of his ideas to improve Colorado’s school system.

“The board needs to bring recommendations and at least frame the ideas for the public so they know what they’re listening to,” Scheffel said. “The (law) is so long and convoluted. To go out without any general direction, the public won’t even have a voice.”

Crandall dismissed Scheffel’s claims and said the department had no agenda.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

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