The Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education tonight may ask its superintendent to seek a waiver from the state allowing the district not to administer portions of Colorado’s new standardized testing system.
But whether Jeffco, the state’s second largest school district, can even ask for such a waiver remains open to question.
The board’s debate on a resolution about seeking a waiver will come a little more than a week after the State Board of Education, in a split vote, told the state’s education commissioner to accept waiver applications from school districts.
Commissioner Robert Hammond told the state board earlier this month that he doubted the legality of such waivers and has asked the state’s attorney general’s office for an opinion on the matter.
While the attorney general’s office has not issued an official opinion, a top staffer for the attorney general told the State Senate Education Committee today that such waivers could not be granted.
“The State Board of Education does not have the authority to grant a waiver,” said David Blake, chief deputy attorney general. “The General Assembly has limited the board’s authority to grant a waiver” by laws passed previously. “The black letter of the law is clear.”
The Colorado Department of Education previously rejected two testing waivers on the same legal grounds — that the department didn’t have the legal authority to grant them. Those districts were Montrose and Colorado Springs District 11.
The resolution the Jeffco board will debate tonight acknowledges the legal uncertainty. If the forthcoming decision from the attorney general’s office prohibits districts from applying for waivers, Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee will need to come up with a plan for administering the online-based exams known as PARCC.
Hammond told Chalkbeat he expects about a dozen districts to apply for waivers.
Tonight’s Jeffco debate and vote will be the board’s first attempt to tackle directly the highly political issues of testing. While conservative board member Julie Williams has pushed the issue before, the board hasn’t yet taken any sort of action on testing. That’s because board chairman Ken Witt has previously stopped debate on the topic, citing legal requirements to test. The state board’s vote last week may change that.
The waivers, if found to be legal, would allow school districts to skip the first part of PARCC test scheduled to be administered between March and April. Those school districts with a waiver would still be required to give the end-of-year portion of the PARCC exam in May.
States including Colorado that make up the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the organization that is designing and implementing the new standardized exams, decided to split the tests into two parts.
Colorado education officials stress the two parts make up one complete assessment.
“Failure to take a portion of the test would not give a full picture of students’ mastery of the standards, and the score would not be valid,” said Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for CDE. “It’s really no different than previous tests – TCAP and CSAP – which were also broken down into sections of about an hour or so. If students don’t take the whole test, their scores will be incomplete.”
It’s unclear what sort of consequences a waiver from the tests would have for the state’s school accountability and teacher effectiveness systems, which are dependent upon the results of both parts of the assessments.
The first part the PARCC test is designed to asses a student’s critical-thinking skills. During the English tests, for example, students read multiple passages and then write what they’ve learned. In the math portion, students are asked to solve multi-step problems that require reasoning.
The second part of the exam, to be administered near the end of the school year, gauges comprehension of both literary and mathematical concepts.
Both sections of the exam will be used to determine a student’s proficiency in English and math. The state will also use that data in teacher evaluations and school ratings.
The discussion by the Jeffco school board to seek a waiver is the most recent development in an ongoing debate about testing in Colorado and across the nation.
Last year, the Douglas County School District’s Board of Education pitched a bill to the Colorado General Assembly that would have allowed some school districts to completely opt out of the state’s entire testing system — if they could prove they were academically successful. But that bill was watered down to instead create a committee to review the state’s testing system. The panel wrapped up the majority of its work earlier this week.
As computer-based exams were rolled out for the first time last spring, education officials across the state raised concerns about how much time is devoted to testing and the drain it takes on physical resources like computer labs.
And this fall, seniors at mostly suburban and affluent schools ditched their required tests in science and social studies claiming the results meant nothing to their future college or career ambitions.
And as Congress takes up the issue of the nation’s education laws, how much testing is required by the federal government will be a cornerstone issue. Under current law, schools across the nation are required to test all students in English and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. They’re also required to test one grade in elementary, middle, and high school in science.
A bill just introduced by Democratic lawmakers at the Colorado statehouse would roll back the state’s testing system to the so-called federal minimum.