Test kids less so they can learn more, Colorado task force says

Photo: Testing task force presenting to jt. committee
Members of the Colorado Standards and Assessments Task Force walk lawmakers through their recommendations on testing.

A state task force is recommending rolling back some of the tests Colorado’s public school children take every year.

“We’re hoping this report will give you traction to do something to reduce the pressure on our schools,” task force chairman Dan Snowberger, superintendent of the Durango School District. The task force suggested the fixes to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education committees Wednesday.

A state study last year found that educators, parents, and school administrators want fewer and shorter tests. Last winter, lawmakers created the 15-member task force on standards and assessments. It’s composed of district administrators, school board members, business representatives, parents and teachers.

Its assignment: Revamp the testing system so that it strikes a balance between the need to hold schools accountable and the widespread belief that the testing burden is overwhelming and is cutting into learning time.

The task force met for six months, wading into the complex morass of testing requirements and conflicting expectations for what those tests are supposed to accomplish.

Luke Ragland, a task force member and vice-president of the business group Colorado Succeeds, said members agreed that assessments – both state and local – provide data to hold schools and districts accountable for school performance and for comparing groups of students to one another. But he said public comment and studies the task force commissioned made it clear that state and local tests combined led to students spending too much time taking tests.

“The task force recognized that these problems undermined public support for the assessment system as a whole,” he said. “The consensus of the task force is that, where possible, changes must be made to the type, frequency, and use of various assessments.”

Here are the task force’s recommendations:

  • Eliminate all testing for high school seniors. High school seniors began taking science and social studies last fall, but thousands refused to take them. “It lacks student buy in,” says Ragland.
  • Make math and reading tests for 11th-grade students optional, with the only mandated test for juniors being the already-mandated ACT (college entrance exam). This spring, juniors are set to take new English and Math standardized tests called PAARC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)
  • Make sure high school students fulfill science testing requirements through an augmented ACT test.
  • Streamline reading tests and school readiness assessments for students through third grade. “There are things that can be done to reduce redundancy,” said Adele Bravo, a Boulder teacher on the task force. “It is not necessary to give a Kindergarten student both assessments.” Students are given both a Kindergarten readiness assessment and a literacy test that’s mandated through the new Read Act law.
  • Make pencil-and-paper tests optional for all state tests beginning in 2015 because of complaints that computer lab time and space is being lost to testing.
  • Do not penalize districts in ratings through 2016 if they don’t get the required 95 percent of their students taking tests.
  • Math and reading tests are mandated by federal law and should continue in third through eighth grades. The task force is also recommending those tests in 10th grade.

The body couldn’t come to an agreement on whether to eliminate math and reading tests for ninth graders and whether to eliminate social studies testing altogether. Social studies tests in fourth, seventh, and 12th grades are a Colorado, not federal, requirement.

One member of the task force, parent representative Bethany Drosendahl, dissented. She would have liked to see more support for parents who want to opt their children out of tests and more flexibility for districts.

Lawmakers' response

“Thank you for listening to the students,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Arapahoe County Democrat, referring to the recommendation to eliminate the 12th-grade tests. “Their message [student protests] was loud and clear."

Some lawmakers urged more transparency and clarity for parents on what tests their children are taking.

"For us to move down this road to progress from where we are right now, it is so very imperative that we have the trust and buy-in of parents,” said Republican Senator Chris Holbert, representing Douglas County.

Others leaned towards Colorado dropping out of the state consortium PAARC, which will be administering math and English tests this spring. And it is clear that they are divided on the need for state tests in their current form. Several testing bills have already been introduced this session.

Some of those proposals include allowing districts to cut back testing to federal minimums and striking the mandated ACT test. Another bill withdraws Colorado from the Common Core standards and the PAARC testing system. A third bill would cut back required social studies tests.

In the long term, task force members want a permanent advisory group. They say more examination is needed on finding the right state-local test balance, clarification on how parents can opt their children out of tests, how to give districts flexibility. The committee also urged more money for technology.

Should lawmakers adopt changes to the state’s testing regimen, the earliest they could be implemented is the 2015-16 school year.