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How Colorado districts comply with state law speaks volumes about their views on testing

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)
Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

At Boulder Valley School District high schools this spring, it was business as usual for freshmen in high-level courses who wanted no part of state standardized testing.

Students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs who skipped PARCC math and language arts exams received regular instruction. If you were among the few students who did take the tests, now in their second year, you had to catch up later.

This practice — which has been criticized by some lawmakers and parents — tests the limits of a state law that established new rules for how school districts handle federally required state assessments.

Last spring, lawmakers approved compromise testing legislation that reduced the volume of tests and required districts to provide more information about testing schedules and how to opt out. House Bill 1323 prohibits negative consequences for parents or students who opt-out of tests, and prohibits encouraging parents to opt their children out.

How districts have complied with the law opens a window into whether they value or dislike the current testing system and holding schools, districts and teachers accountable for results. Some districts — including Denver, the state’s largest — heavily promote the tests. Others do not.

The state’s official testing window closes today, and the coming months will provide a clearer picture of how the new testing law impacted participation rates and a host of other issues.

In Boulder Valley, how schools responded to state test opt-outs this spring varied by circumstances and grade, Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger said.

In elementary schools, where participation is high, students who don’t test may have been ushered to the library. Teachers in elementary and middle schools were told not to offer new instruction to students who skipped PARCC exams, he said.

But high school, Messinger said, presents different challenges.

The school district boasted some of the largest testing opt-out numbers in Colorado last year, especially in high schools in predominantly white, wealthy and liberal Boulder.

Last year’s testing legislation did away with PARCC testing for high school sophomores and juniors. But PARCC testing of freshmen remains — at least for now.

Messinger said if a large number of freshmen in advanced courses skipped the tests in the district’s five comprehensive high schools, regular instruction proceeded for those students. Freshmen who took the PARCC tests in those courses were promised help catching up, he said.

“We understand that feels like a little bit of of a mixed message,” Messinger said. “Last year, many students opted out. The biggest concern from parents and students was that lost instructional time.”

“If we shut the whole system down to make it more conducive to testing, it really is impactful for a number of other students,” he continued. “That is the balance we are trying to find.”

The Colorado Department of Education is aware of the Boulder Valley situation and department staff is concerned about anything that might discourage kids from taking state tests, said Dana Smith, a spokeswoman. She said staff looked at how the district approached instruction in advanced high school courses during testing and found it was “probably OK.”

But even if it were problematic, the 2015 testing law does not spell out potential consequences for schools and districts that don’t comply.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said he’s received dozens of emails from parents in Boulder about the district’s handling of this spring’s tests. Johnston said last year’s testing legislation — he was a key player in seeing it through — was intended to ensure students who opt out don’t suffer retaliation or pressure from school administrators.

“It was not intended to create an environment that makes it uncomfortable for kids to take tests,” Johnston told Chalkbeat. “I’m worrying that they’re punishing kids for opting in.”

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a supporter of state assessments, was more pointed in her criticism of Boulder Valley’s practices.

“I can’t think of a more critical time than in high school to know if a kid is on track,” Frickey Saito said. “To penalize those kids and families who want to know they’re on track is outrageous.”

The approach in Denver Public Schools reflects the district’s support for testing and accountability.

DPS has underscored the value of testing in newsletters and conversations with parents and students while stressing the right balance of time spent on instruction and testing, officials said.

“We’ve essentially tried to be proactive in having conversations with those students and with parents to try to change what could be the lower participation rates,” said Rochanda Jackson, the district’s assessment administration manager. “We are trying to get out the message that his information (from state tests) is worthwhile, even though it may not seem that way.”

What happened with the relatively few DPS students who opted out of tests and still came to school varied by building, Jackson said. Study hall was one avenue schools could choose.

Though DPS historically boasts high test participation rates, pockets of resistance exist. Lynn Roberts, a Denver parent active in the opt-out movement, criticized the district for what she considers to be a heavy-handed approach that makes it harder for parents to opt-out.

“I don’t think they are going to advertise a parent’s legal right to opt out,” said Roberts, an elementary school mom and former teacher. “And I believe they are very invested in getting test scores and making decisions based on test-based accountability for teachers and schools.”.

The district, for example, shut down an online opt-out form ahead of this spring’s tests, she pointed out. District officials say that was done to make sure opt-out figures were being accurately tracked, and parents could still opt-out by emailing or talking to principals.

Other districts provided online options for opting out, as well, including Boulder Valley, Douglas County and Cherry Creek. All those districts saw large volumes of opt-outs in 2015.

“Obviously in Douglas County we do feel students are often over-tested,” Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen said. “Our message is very consistent with that. We absolutely believe in parents and their choice to excuse children from state mandated testing, and we support that.”

Todd Engdahl of Capitol Editorial Services contributed information to this report.

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