Will Your Student Take A Standardized Test This Year? Lobbyists, Educators And Lawmakers Are Facing Off Over That Question

Empty Denver South High School
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Desks at Denver’s South High School, Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Whether thousands of Colorado school children will take standardized tests this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic is turning into a formidable battle, with lobbyists, parents, educators, and advocacy groups lined up ready to fight.

The annual tests, referred to as CMAS, measure students’ academic progress at the end of the year in English language arts, math, science and social studies. Students in third through eighth grades take the springtime tests, with the results released the following school year.

State lawmakers are deciding whether to request a waiver this year from the federally-mandated tests.

During a press conference Thursday, several large education organizations — including the state’s largest teachers union — called for the tests to be postponed, citing a number of reasons: students struggling with pandemic-related stress, many lost instruction days, massive logistical problems to execute the tests, and data that wouldn’t necessarily be reliable or valuable.

“When students and educators are struggling, bouncing between in-person, virtual and hybrid learning depending on the COVID-19 conditions in their community, administering the CMAS this spring would be irresponsible,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association.

Polls differ on what parents want

The groups released poll results showing two-thirds of public school parents in all regions of Colorado want standardized tests canceled this spring. Just over half placed a higher priority on classroom instruction focused on closing learning gaps compared to seven percent prioritizing standardized testing to assess learning gaps.

Nearly 4 in 10 identified giving mental and social supports for students as their top priority.

There was a significant divide between mothers and fathers of public-school children. Of them, 77 percent of moms want the standardized tests canceled, compared to 52 percent of dads.

The poll of 729 active Colorado voters was conducted by Harstad Strategic Research, Inc. for the Colorado Association of School Superintendents, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

A separate poll, released a week ago by education advocacy groups, found many parents generally supportive of testing. It showed 46 percent of parents with children in K-12 supported statewide assessments.

However, when responding to a question about testing knowing the results would be used only to determine the amount of student academic learning loss and not be used for teacher or school accountability, the percent supportive increased to 62 percent.

That poll was conducted by Keating Research and was paid for by Democrats for Education Reform, Ready Colorado and Colorado Succeeds. 

“Parents, educators, and schools need to understand where the learning loss is occurring so we can provide support for those students and districts who need it the most,” said Kelly Caufield, vice president of government affairs for Colorado Succeeds. “We know based on national research that lifetime earnings could be down due to student learning loss.”

Educators push back against the argument that CMAS data would be helpful

But educators across Colorado say it’s false to assume teachers don’t know where their students are academically right now.

“I think it’s a travesty to think somehow that this [CMAS] information is going to provide some kind of looking glass into where kids are that we don’t know right now,” said Monica Johnson, superintendent of Strasburg school district, and president of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Johnson listed off a number of district-tests that teachers are already giving children now in real-time. Johnson said educators want to identify and quickly respond to student needs “to make sure that if there are gaps happening we can close them, if there are needs present we can fill them.”

“We are using the data we have today to plan for how we’re going to extend the school year for kids who need it, perhaps offer jump-start programs for kids who need it, and that’s the data that we’re going to use,” Johnson said. “Administering for a state test is going to take away from that time.”

CMAS’s delayed results won’t help teachers now, she added.

Educators argue that the point of standardized tests is to compare student groups when factors are constant, none of which exists now as students shuttle back and forth between remote and in-person depending on their school district. Thousands of students have had learning interrupted due to unreliable internet.

Johnson predicted there will be many parents who opt their children out of the tests, further diminishing the reliability of them.

An unstable school year laced with personal trauma for many students

Educators on Thursday’s press call underscored the magnitude of the emotional trauma many students have endured: losing family members, loss of family income, stability and consistency. They said students need consistency now and fewer disruptions to their learning.

Emily Bochenek, a special education teacher in Estes Park, said the year has been particularly challenging and stressful for students and teachers, with wildfires, evacuations and the pandemic in her region.

“The trauma that happened during that season is still very much real and alive in our schools,” she said.

Bochenek worries that the testing, which spans several weeks, will take away from the amount of individual support she can give students. She said tracking student progress with data is typically her favorite thing.

“But this year we need that tracking at a classroom and district level,” she said.

Adams 14 parent Laura Martinez said she and other immigrant parents question the benefits of replacing classroom teaching with the standardized tests.

“But we do see the costs,” she said. “Loss of instruction time, money, which could be spent on making our schools safe from COVID, additional needless stress and anxiety for our children. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

She said even if she opts her son out of the tests, he’ll just sit in the library, still missing valuable instructional time.

Logistical challenges with technology and coronavirus restrictions

Thousands of students in remote and hybrid learning are using school-issued laptops. State Rep. Emily Sirota, one of the sponsors of a bill to ask for a testing waiver, said the logistics of administering the test will be “a nightmare” for districts.

Schools will need to retrieve, prepare, clean devices and return the devices, leaving some students without learning devices for days or weeks.

“When thinking through equity issues, let’s think about who will be most negatively impacted by losing access to their devices?” Sirota said.

To comply with COVID-19 health and safety protocols, many schools would need to test across multiple days in multiple locations, including virtually, educators say. They argue that compromises the integrity and security of CMAS and takes away instructional time that students desperately need.

Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said some districts don’t have one-to-one computer to student ratios. He said in normal times, district technology directors have to individually reset students’ computers multiple times during a test.

“How are we going to do that remotely?”