Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Some parting thoughts...

Earlier today, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper announced he signed House Bill 1323. After a series of compromises in the final week of the legislative session, this bill ended up somewhere between its original form and Senate Bill 257, which we'd previously voiced support for.

Assuming you've read this blog before, you can probably guess what our position is. We are pleased by the reduction of testing in 11th/12th grades. We are pleased by the replacement of 10th grade PARCC with the ACT aspire, as we believe this provides students with better preparation for the ACT, which helps with college entrance.

We are cautiously optimistic about the pilot program which would allow districts to utilize examinations other than PARCC, so long as such exams still comply with federal requirements. From Colorado Chalkbeat
The compromise allows any district or group of districts to apply to the state for approval to “pilot” new tests. Eventually two tests would be chosen from those pilots. And in the end the Department of Education – with legislative approval – could use one new set of tests statewide.
While it is unclear exactly how such a program will play out, we hope that districts will take up the challenge to find better exams than PARCC. Other states such as New Hampshire have been through this process, but it takes time.

As high school students, we applaud these changes.  As citizens, we recognize that Colorado's standardized testing system has improved, but is still far from perfect. Substantial changes to standardized testing depend on federal action to change the 2002 No Child Left Behind act. Although there has been talk of reforming NCLB, nothing has come into fruiton yet.

When we began this process last fall, our primary goal, aside from reducing the standardized testing burden Colorado students face, was to simply increase student voice and involvement in the education process. We continue to believe that as students, we have a unique perspective on education and public schools.  While we are certainly limited in some aspects, we also understand things that parents and teachers and politicians miss. 

Of course, those of us who have maintained this blog are high school seniors at Fairview high school. We are all graduating this weekend. Although we will no longer be Colorado high school students, our commitment to education, social justice, and celebrating the youth voice remains strong.

We aren't really sure what we are going to do with this blog. We'd like to keep it open to Colorado students who want to express their views about education. We'll continue to maintain our email account ( If students in the future are looking for an outlet to express their views on standardized testing or other aspects of education, we would be happy to help them do that.

Finally, we want to express our gratitude for the support we have received from our community. We are thankful we never faced consequences for choosing to express our views on standardized testing.  We are grateful for the opportunities we had to interact with fellow student protestors at several statewide panels; we are grateful we were able to express our views to the 1202 Task Force last fall; we are grateful that our testimony was heard in the Senate this past April. So to everyone who has helped us along the way, thank you.

Best wishes,
Jessica Piper

Fairview High School '15

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

John Oliver on standardized testing

John Oliver, host of the HBO show Last Week Tonight, discussed standardized testing on his latest episode. Since we all love the show, and his commentary on testing was really excellent, here's the video:

(Trigger warning: there is some bleeped swearing and the word "vomit.")

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Support S.B. 257!

Over the last few months, we've frequently expressed concern that Colorado's legislature, despite the 1202 Task Force report, despite student protests and opt-outs, and despite the promises we've heard to reduce testing, would not act. Consequently, we were pleased to see the development of Senate Bill 257, which passed committee last week. This piece of legislation, proposed by Senators Mike Merrifield and Owen Hill:
  • reduces testing to federal minimum levels (every year in grades 3-8, once in grades 10-12, but keeps the state-mandated ACT intact)
  • postpone the use of standardized testing as a significant part of teacher and school evaluation for three more years- this way, standardized tests won't be used a major measurement while the system is still being sorted out
  • allows districts to choose standardized tests other than PARCC, so long as they still meet federal requirements
This third point is particularly crucial from a student perspective. We've frequently expressed concern about the content as well as the cost of the PARCC tests. (The tests this spring cost roughly $37 million, according to the Denver Post. The state spent a similar amount last fall.) Under S.B. 257, districts would have the opportunity to pursue cheaper, less time-consuming tests. We believe this would lead to the development of better standardized tests, which would lead to better standardized testing system as a whole.

The issue, at this point, is whether S.B. 257 bill make it through the legislature. The bill will likely be up in the Senate chambers toward the end of April. Meanwhile, the House is considering House Bill 1323, which, as we wrote last week, wastes taxpayer money and doesn't do nearly enough to alleviate our concerns about standardized testing.

S.B 257 is a decent solution to the complicated problem of standardized testing in Colorado. We encourage Colorado legislators to take this opportunity to create meaningful reform.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

S.B. 215 and H.B. 1323

We wrote last week how Senate Bill 215 ignored much of the task force report and made only cosmetic changes to Colorado's standardized testing system.

The good news is Senate Bill 215 was pulled from committee. The bad news is, House Bill 1323 was introduced and does virtually the same thing. The recent bill also legalizes parental opt-out: we wrote last week why such a measure misunderstands the opt-out movement.

Neither of these bills are awful; they also aren't solutions to Colorado's current failed standardized testing system.

House Bill 1323 would renew the task force on standardized testing for another year, even though the bill (like the rest of the Colorado legislature) does not implement the recommendations the task force already made.

Furthermore the bill does not address several issues of parent, student, and teacher concern, including:

  • privatization of testing and education
  • finances devoted to standardized testing
  • students' data privacy
  • over-testing in grades 3-10
  • the continued reliance on standardized testing for school and teacher performance assessment

A solution to Colorado's standardized testing failures needs to be actual reform, not surface level changes that only affect a minority of Colorado students. House Bill  1323 falls short.

Monday, March 30, 2015

the achievement gap, testing, and accountability

In recent months, the Colorado legislature has repeatedly debated reforming Colorado's standardized testing system. One issue that has frequently come up is the importance of preserving equity in education through testing. For instance, in an editorial last week, the Denver Post wrote:
"In all the furor surrounding testing that has erupted at the statehouse, the equity issue sometimes gets lost. Yet, it's immensely important to be able to tell whether kids in poverty and minority children are making progress and that their instruction is effective."
Equity in education is a goal everyone seems to agree on. The disagreement is how to achieve this. I believe that Colorado's current standardized testing system doesn't achieve equity. So we can't talk about "preserving equity through testing" because that doesn't actually exist in the first place.

Here are the issues I see with (in)equity in Colorado's standardized testing system:

1. Computer-based testing, especially at lower grade levels, naturally benefits students students with more computer experience, which are usually students from higher income brackets.

In Colorado, computer-based testing is encouraged beginning in fourth grade. This is problematic because kids don't necessarily have the computer skills in elementary school to type answers. This form of testing also exacerbates inequality because students who live in poverty are much less likely to use computers at home than students from a middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, and thus wealthier students and wealthier schools will score better on the tests.

2. The current science and social studies testing unfairly favors large schools.

As we discovered last fall, the high school science and social studies testing targets all of science and social studies. This includes subjects like economics, which small schools do not offer. Naturally, students who haven't taken these course will score lower on the standardized tests.

The task force recommended eliminating science and social studies testing for high school seniors in January; thus far, the state legislature has not taken action.

3. Some schools can afford to purchase test-oriented textbooks, while others cannot.

Colorado students have not fared well on the new standardized tests thus far. Pearson, which makes the PARCC and CMAS tests, also makes textbooks which are aligned to the tests. (I rip on Pearson a lot, but the other standardized testing companies all do the same thing.) This matters because, as Temple University professor and data journalist Meredith Broussard wrote last July:
"[S]tandardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers. ... Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook."
Even overlooking the obvious issue of whether Pearson textbooks are actually best for students' education, it's easy to see how this system contributes to further educational inequity.

Textbooks aren't cheap: some schools can't afford them whatsoever. Some schools can afford enough for classroom copies but not for students to take home; some schools can afford to give every student a personal tablet and e-book copies of the textbooks.

Yet all those students take the same standardized test.

4. The timing of testing (currently March and either April or May for most Colorado students) doesn't account for the achievement gap. 

Proponents of Colorado's standardized testing system have repeatedly advocated standardized testing as a measure of student growth from year-to-year.  However, studies have repeatedly shown that the income-based achievement gap in the United States primarily occurs over the summer.

Take the following (very oversimplified) scenario:
Students A and B both score "100" on a standardized test in May.
Student A is of high socioeconomic status.  Over the summer, he/she participates in a few summer camps, visits the library every week, or takes part in other summer learning programs. Over the summer, Student A improves 20 standardized testing points; if an exam was given on the first day of school, Student A would have scored 120. 
Student B doesn't have access or exposure to the same educational resources as Student A. Over the summer, Student B loses 30 standardized testing points; if an exam was given on the first day of school, Student B would have scored 70. 
The following May, Student A and Student B once again partake in standardized testing. Student A scores a 130; Student B scores a 110.
According to Colorado's current standardized testing system, Student A progressed more than Student B. However, when accounting for the summer learning achievement gap, Student B actually made miraculous strides, whereas Student A hardly improved.

Of course, in Colorado we don't have the data to determine how students gained or lost educational experience over the summer.  Consequently, while the achievement gap undoubtably affects Colorado students and their test scores, the current testing system doesn't measure how.

So what does this all mean?

I think the idea that standardized testing contributes to inequity can be difficult for some people because we'd like to think that measuring student growth is simple and that the data collected actually means something. Unfortunately, this logic is highly problematic.

Under Colorado's current system, the data collected via standardized testing is flawed. So when this data is then used to inform everything from teacher salaries to classroom standards to school comparisons, it leads to bad policymaking.

Some of the debate over testing in Colorado has been linked to the Common Core standards Colorado adopted in 2010. To me, these issues are only loosely related.  Holding Colorado students to high standards isn't controversial; the only question is how best to do it.

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least try to provide a solution, so the following are a few suggestions for Colorado's standardized testing system:

-Change the timing of testing. Minimize the amount of class time spent on testing. One option: hold 1-2 hours of math and 1-2 hours of literacy testing in August when students return to school, and another 1-2 hours in each subject in April or May. This tracks student progress, accounts for the achievement gap, and is still way less time than Colorado students currently spend testing.

(My middle school, a charter school, did this and I always found it way more useful than the state-administered standardized tests.)

-Making testing feedback more readily available. Right now, schools, parents, and students don't get testing feedback for 4-6 months. That's too long.

-If social studies testing is really desired, use an "exit exam" format. If Colorado has set standards for what students are supposed to learn in high school government, why not test them on those standards once they have completed their high school government class?

-Make learning materials equally available to all Colorado schools. This requires no explanation.

-Make paper-and-pencil exams the norm, at least in elementary school. Initially, schools were required to use computers; the state eventually relaxed this requirement. Nonetheless, 85% of schools still used the computer option. I'm doubtful that comparing computer-based scores and paper-based scores is perfectly accurate.

I think there is a tendency to characterize the movement against Colorado's standardized testing as anti-accountability.  To me, that couldn't be further from the truth.  Accountability in education is incredibly important, but it goes both ways.  We can't go on holding our teachers and schools and students "accountable" while we take for granted that testing works. My hope is that those who actually have the power to influence Colorado's standardized testing system will reach this conclusion, sooner rather than later.

-Jessica Piper

Like usual, if you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments or hit me up on twitter (@jpiper303)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Senate Bill-223 gets wrong

Senate Bill 15-223, currently in the Colorado legislature, would legitimize the ability of parents and students to opt out of standardized testing by not punishing schools for low participation rates. But, as Nic Garcia of Colorado Chalkbeat wrote, most activists aren't happy about it.

Here's my take: Legalizing opt out recognizes our protest. That could be considered a good thing. But the fundamental issue with Senate Bill 15-223 is that it views opt out as an end, whereas we've always seen it as a means.

When we students protested last fall, it wasn't just to avoid taking a test. It was to stand up to a system that we believe wastes state money, preserves educational inequities, and hurts Colorado students.

Likewise, parents and students who are refusing state PARCC testing this spring hope that their refusal—their voice—will lead to actually policy change.

The goal of the opt out movement is not to get every student to opt out, it's to change the way Colorado administers and utilizes standardized testing.

Truthfully, opt out in itself isn't effective as an end. The students who opt out are mostly upper-middle class kids who would (for the most part) score well on the tests anyway. The movement also isn't spread out equally—some schools strongly discourage students from opting out by requiring a parent to sign their child out of class or refusing to administer alternative activities. This only exacerbates the socioeconomic gaps.

My concern is that the Colorado legislature views opt out as a method to placate angry parents and students. This leaves a broken standardized testing system intact.

-Jessica Piper

Like always, if you have any questions, ask me on Twitter (@jpiper303) or in the comments.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

hi Pearson, please let people talk about PARCC

As we've written, PARCC testing is fully underway in Colorado and across the nation.  There's been a lot of talk about the merits of PARCC on social media and in the blogosphere.  It turns out, Pearson, the corporation which produces PARCC, is trying to keep that conversation to a minimum.
This isn't the only case we've heard of.  Pearson appears to want to keep information about PARCC testing off social media.  I have three huge issues with this:

1. It's flat out creepy that Pearson monitors students' social media posts.

2. Students' freedom of speech shouldn't be limited outside of the classroom, especially by a private corporation. If students want to use social media to express concerns about PARCC, they should feel free to do so.  As we've experienced, there is rarely a voice for students in the sphere of education policy; let's not eliminate the one place students can express themselves.

As we saw last fall, student dissent has the potential to have impact on public policymaking. We worry that, if students are discouraged from posting about PARCC on social media, their concerns about PARCC won't be heard.

3. The suppression of content is also rather ironic. According to Pearson, the PARCC testing is different from previous standardized testing because it is skill, not knowledge, based, and therefore forces students to think critically.  If social media posts really "undermine the integrity" of the test, there is no way that PARCC actually measures students' critical thinking skills.

We posted this last November about one student's CMAS experience.  We are all high school seniors and haven't taken the PARCC tests, but if there are anything students reading this who'd like to share their story, send an email to We'd love to publish your story.