Testing waivers still alive, state board wants to make it easier for parents to opt out

<p><span style="color: #333333; font-family: Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 11px; line-height: 15px;">(AP Photo/Ty Wright)</span></p>
<p>Students in Ohio prepare for their state standards test.</p>

The controversy over whether 19 Colorado school districts can opt out of the first part of new state standardized tests is still alive. Members of the Colorado State Board of Education delayed action Wednesday on whether to issue waivers to the districts that have applied for them.

The 19 districts represent about 20,000 students. All have applied for waivers from the first part of the new state Math and English tests, called PAARC. Students in grades three through eight, as required by federal law, will begin taking them next month. In Colorado, 11th graders will also take the Math and English tests this year.

On Feb. 10, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office issued a ruling that the state department of education has no legal authority to grant testing waivers.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl and Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond said the two portions of the test can’t be separated.

“There’s a possibility here, given the way federal funds are organized, that the decision of some districts to not do this assessment will imperil federal funding for the state as a whole,” said Dyl.

Board member Steve Durham appeared to shrug off that concern, saying he’s yet to see the feds pull funding. Superintendent Rob Sanders of the Merino school district told the board that accommodating all the testing is a huge burden on his small district.

“As we get into testing season, which we don’t call spring anymore, we believe we are going to be limiting access and learning opportunities for our students. We will be shutting down our libraries and our computer labs for 2.5 months,” said Sanders.

Board members decided to consider the waiver issue at its next meeting in March.

But they waded into another issue. Federal law also requires a 95 percent participation in testing. If districts don’t meet that threshold in two or more tests, states must impose penalties on districts. The penalty is a lowering in its accreditation rating, for example, from the highest category “blue” to the next highest “green.”

The board voted 4 to 2 to exempt districts from a penalty if they don’t meet the 95 percent threshold. One board member who supported the measure said they wanted to eliminate pressure on parents to have their students take the tests. Another said districts shouldn’t be held liable for parents’ decisions.

It’s unclear, though, whether the board’s action is legal and may necessitate another decision from the Attorney General’s office. Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen said a change in penalty for districts would have to be negotiated with federal authorities when Colorado re-applies for a waiver from some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.