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Colorado Board of Education wants to resume state tests and ratings

Masked high school students sit several feet apart at long tables working on papers.

Colorado’s State Board of Education weighed in as lawmakers are considering legislation to provide a transition period before the accountability system is fully back.

RichVintage / Getty Images

The Colorado Board of Education recommended Thursday resuming full statewide testing and using those results to restart accountability ratings, but state lawmakers ultimately will decide what the system looks like next year.

The State Board weighed in as key Democratic lawmakers are considering legislation that would provide a transition period before schools face the full consequences of low student performance. 

In a special meeting Thursday morning, the board approved three resolutions recommending that full state testing begin again this spring and that the accountability ratings resume for schools and districts. The resolutions also included details for creating a transitional year in which the ratings would have lower stakes for schools and districts.

The legislature will have final say in making these changes this session as they are part of state law, but the board approved the plan to show lawmakers what they support. The accountability system has been on pause during the pandemic. The last ratings were issued in 2019.

The 2022 ratings would not automatically move schools or districts on or off the state’s watchlist for low performance, according to the board’s recommendations. 

Instead, the state board could make policy changes so that schools or districts that have improved results which are representative — with at least 90% participation rates — could request a hearing with the state to reconsider their ratings. 

All seven State Board members approved the three recommendations.

In a written statement responding to the State Board’s proposed plan, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, pointed out that there are still disruptions related to COVID this school year. 

“Today’s resolutions made by the Colorado State Board of Education recognize that we are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the disruptions and pressures on students that come along with it,” Baca-Oehlert said. “Now more than ever, we must have a thoughtful transition as we move from the limited and inconsistent data of the past two years back to fully implementing the current law. Without a transition, simply resuming the accountability system in 2022 is fraught with issues that will impact the integrity of the accountability system and could cause unnecessary harm to students, schools and districts.”

Federal and state law require standardized tests — in Colorado, that’s the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, better known as CMAS, for students in third through eighth grades and the PSAT and SAT for high school students. The laws also describe how tests should be used for rating schools and districts. Any changes ultimately require federal waivers and legislative action or an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, plans to introduce legislation this session that would blunt the full consequences of the state’s accountability system while schools are still recovering from the pandemic. The Arvada Democrat said she’s still working with colleagues and school district officials to determine the details. It might mean monitoring schools whose performance dropped during the pandemic, but not with the same level of scrutiny, or allowing schools to leave the watch list more quickly.

“We think there might be some unintended consequences if we just apply the old system. We need an interim approach,” Zenzinger said. “We can’t just step back into the accountability system as if nothing happened.”

The proposal is likely to face pushback from some Democrats and many Republicans. The state’s accountability system has enjoyed bipartisan support.

State Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican who serves on the House Education Committee, said the drop in test scores during the pandemic calls for more attention, not less.

“At some point we need to demand accountability again,” he said. “Our system is not a punitive system. It’s an intervention system.”

In the spring, Colorado lawmakers passed legislation that scaled back 2021 state testing, just a week before districts were to administer the tests. The federal government only approved narrow waiver requests and denied requests from states that wanted to halt testing completely.

The spring 2021 tests were significantly scaled back compared to 2019 as students either took English or math tests, depending on their grade level, instead of both. Participation was also significantly lower in many places. The 2021 test results were not used to evaluate teachers or rate schools and districts as the school accountability system remained on pause.

Some board members said they regretted the state’s decision to scale back testing last school year, because of the lack of data that is now available.

The board had asked staff from the Colorado Department of Education to analyze how missing data from tests that weren’t taken in 2021 would impact comparable ratings for schools and districts.

To evaluate the impact of missing data, department staff re-calculated 2019 ratings with less data and found that, in most cases, the calculation would give the same results despite using less data. But in some scenarios, about 11% of schools would have received a different rating, indicating the missing data mattered. 

The state projects that several more schools than in previous years will have insufficient data to calculate a rating, in part because of low participation rates and missing data from 2021 tests.

Some board members, however, said it’s important to have more information about how students are faring after pandemic-related disruptions to learning. Recalculating performance ratings for schools and districts, even if it doesn’t move them on or off state watchlists, can help new districts or schools that are struggling tap into state money and resources to turn things around.

Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

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