Are students in Colorado tested too much?

(Courtesy of Renata Genoza)

If your kids seem a little dazed these next few weeks, it’s because they're taking yet another standardized test. Hundreds of thousands of kids across Colorado are logging onto computers for several hours of questioning. The test is considered tough, triggering anxiety in schools across the state. To understand more about what’s in the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or “PARCC” exams, Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner spoke with CPR News' education reporter, Jenny Brundin.

Ryan Warner: So, in general, how are the new tests different from the old tests?

Jenny Brundin: First, they’re online, though districts do have the option of giving math tests using paper and pencil. Second, they’ll be harder -- harder probably than students have ever taken. These tests will challenge students to think much more deeply on complex problems and questions. Third, the amount of time taking tests will be longer… about 25 to 45 minutes longer for the average student to complete.

Third through 11th grader kids are taking these tests. So, what are they like?

So let’s start with language arts. Take 4th grade: in older reading tests, students might have to give a multiple choice answer when asked what a certain word means. Now, the student finds the meaning by reading text. Then they have to find evidence in the text to illustrate why they know that’s the meaning of a word. In writing, to give you an idea of what a 4th grader taking the old Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP test, might do, here’s an actual prompt:  a kangaroo can hop as fast as a slow-moving car. Imagine you can hop like a kangaroo for one day. Write a story to tell what happens, how you feel, and how you return to normal. Now, in the new tests, a 4th grader might read a story about a girl from India and a poem that expresses how the speaker faces frightening experiences. They have to write an essay about a theme from the poem. Often, their writing must synthesize what they’ve read.

Is the idea that that’s the kind of writing they’ll be doing in college and/or in a job?

Yes. No more imagining what it’s like to be a kangaroo, though I admit, that sounds like fun!

What about math? What did that test used to be like?

OK, let’s take 3rd grade. Before, a student would be asked to shade in the part of a candy bar that represents “one-quarter” of a candy bar. Now,  instead of just identifying the fraction, they have to identify it on a number line, and break down what the numerator and denominator mean as points on a number line. Research has shown that students who master this deeper meaning of fractions show more success with algebra later on in high school.

Jenny, you’ve actually taken some of the practice tests. What did you think?

Yes, I’d recommend all parents and students do this because it really gives you an idea of these harder skills students are being asked to master. Just google “PARCC practice tests” and click on either “math” or “language arts” and you can pick a grade level. I looked at 8th grade language arts. I found the passages to be quite interesting to read.  You have to really think! If students haven’t had much practice reading, reasoning, and thinking critically outside school, I think the tests will be more difficult.

And math?

Math was a different story. A lot of it deals with knowing the conceptual background when figuring out a problem, which many of today’s parents won’t know, like, “Which two ways show how to find the value of 7 x 40?” And for me, trying the upper grades tests -- forget it! I could not remember how to do polynomials, quadratic equations, and linear functions. But I am a middle-aged woman who has not studied math in several decades - and not a 10th grader taking math right now.

Jenny, some schools started taking these tests last week. How did it go?

The Department of Education reports overall, quite well, but there have been some glitches. In Sheridan High School, southwest of Denver, it took about three hours of attempts before most kids could log in. Once in, sometimes the program didn’t function. Other districts reported trouble with  pages not fully loading, but many of problems have been solved.

Last fall thousands of 12th graders opted out of taking the new state social studies and science tests. Can students opt out of these English and math tests, too?

By state law, students have to take the tests. But parents can sign an opt-out form. So, yes. Boulder seems to be the main focus of push-back, with 40 percent of students staying home from tests last week. Some kids are opting out in Colorado Springs and a few other isolated places but nothing major, no widespread rebellion. And districts that have a lot of opt-outs could be penalized, but how so exactly hasn't been determined by the state.

For parents who are following their kids' scores, what can they expect?

Well, parents and others should prepare for big drops in scores. We won’t know those until the end of the year or early next year. Other states have seen up to 30 percent reductions in test scores. But all of this is expected given that what students are learning is much harder.

The tests don’t count for students' grades this year. But could that change?

It could change eventually depending on the district, but so far, no. The tests are meant to give the state a sense of how students, schools, and individual districts are doing. Steamboat High student Zoe Walsh says the fact that it doesn’t count this year is good, but it’s still stressful.

Zoe Walsh: “Just because a test is a test and it’s always determining something and people will be seeing this, it’s not just gone off into space.”

Two Colorado colleges just announced they are considering using PAARC scores as a means to determine whether students are ready to take college course. 

How are teachers feeling about these new tests given the declines in test scores you just mentioned. Are teachers worried about them? Especially that they could affect their performance evaluations or their job security?

Privately, teachers, I'm sure, do worry. But I would say how much teachers focus on and talk about the tests, the tone is set by principals. I found a very different vibe when I traveled to Routt County. There was much less focus on test-taking -- the politics of test-taking. I found administrators made a real effort to not talk about testing, to buffer students and teachers from the stress, and to just focus on learning: so no teachers I’ve met have complained openly. Several kids, though, seemed worried about the impact on teachers if students don’t  try on the tests. And they didn’t think that was fair. Here’s 9th grader Sam Shaffer:

Sam Shaffer: “It’s not even graded on us and doesn’t affect us much. Even our teachers - if there’s one or two kids that don’t try on the test because it doesn’t affect them it’ll come back on the teachers and they’ll get fired, so I think the tests may weigh too heavily on that.”

Teachers likely wouldn't get fired, but the scores will matter in teacher evaluations, which, over the years, determine if teachers stay or go. And all students aren't like Sam Shaffer. Some are not going to try on these tests.

Most teachers seem to support teaching to the more rigorous Common Core standards upon which the tests are based, but some aren’t so sure about subjecting students to the 9 to 11 hours of rigor in a PARCC testing situation. Here’s Maggie Bruski, a very creative and talented math teacher, from Soroco High, in the mountain town of Oak Creek:

Maggie Bruski: I think they’re going to be intense. They are rigorous, which is what the Common Core standards are. They are rigorous. And I get that we need to make sure our kids are working at that higher level, but there’s got to be, maybe, a better way, perhaps!

They generally embrace the tests, but they worry about the time it takes away from classroom instruction.