Saturday, January 31, 2015

The task force report & more...

The 1202 Task  Force presented its findings to the legislature's Join Education Committee last Wednesday. The full report can be read here.

This sentence really stood out to us:
[F]indings from research studies and public input made it clear that Colorado’s current system of State and local assessments has created far too many demands on time, logistics, and finances that are impacting the teaching and learning process in schools and undermining public support for the assessment system as a whole.
There are several positives that we take away from the report:

1) The Task Force recommended completely eliminating the state-mandated CMAS tests for 12th graders. They also recommended making the CMAS English and Math exams optional, to be decided upon by districts and schools.

2) Per the report, the Colorado legislature should "hold all schools and districts harmless from the consequences associated with School and District Performance accountability frameworks (including for low participation rates) through the 2015-2016 school year." Essentially, the Task Force recommends no punishment for schools and districts, such as our own, that failed to meet participation rates on standardized tests.

3) The Task Force recommends that schools be allowed  to administer paper-and-pencil versions of exams. This will help schools, such as our own, that find it difficult to have enough technology for every student.

However, the Task Force did not reach consensus on several key issues. In particular, they were split on whether state-mandated 9th grade Math and English exams and 4th and 7th grade Social Studies exams should be made optional.

We commend the Task Force for the work they have done, and we are thankful they have recognized the need to reduce standardized testing in Colorado.  That said, we believe there is more work to be done. The Task Force seemed to recognize this:
Task Force members recognize that the short-term actions recommended above neither fully address the depths of public concern about the current State and local assessment system nor fully capture the potential of a balanced and aligned system.
Testing, particularly in lower grades, it a still time-consuming and stressful process. Colorado students will still spend many days taking both the PARCC and CMAS exams in Math and English. School funding, including for technology, it still an issue at all levels.  We hope that education policymakers going forward will use the 1202 Task Force as a start point, but will also recognize that its recommendations are only a single step in the right direction to strike the balance between testing and education in Colorado.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Standardized testing, accountability, and student growth

As the Colorado legislature prepares to deal with standardized testing, questions arise surrounding the purpose of testing and its role in holding teachers, schools, and districts accountable.  This Sunday, the Denver Post editorial board presented their take on proposals that would reduce standardized testing:
Clearly, there are ways to slim down the testing volume for students, and such a task becomes less contentious and complex if those involved can agree on basic goals. 
One key goal should be the preservation of what is known as Colorado's growth model in assessing academic achievement. By measuring academic growth over time in addition to overall proficiency, the state can determine whether a district or school is moving students along as fast as their peers elsewhere in the state. 
It's a key measurement when it comes to questions of educational equity for low socio-economic students, and in measuring the relative success of schools in difficult environments. 
And while no one is talking about abolishing such a system — at least not publicly — that is what would happen if the state does not require a reasonable continuum of tests that can chart student progress over time.

Preserving Colorado's "Colorado's growth model in assessing academic achievement," sounds like an admirable goal, but as students who have supposedly been a part of this system, we question the idea that Colorado's current standardized testing system effectively monitors student growth.

Under the CSAP and TCAP testing system, students were monitored once per year, usually in March, in Reading, Writing, and Math.  Students also took science tests in 5th, 8th, and 10th grades.  Under the new PARCC system, students are tested in grades 3-11, with additional social studies and science tests in certain grades.  Furthermore, whereas students were previously tested solely in March, the PARCC tests occur in two separate segments, in March and in May. Proponents argue that this system ensures accountability: if students are tested every year, then the state should be able to track their progress. But we see several problems:

1) The standardized testing system doesn't provide feedback quickly enough for students, parents, or teachers. While school and district tests often provide immediate feedback, state-level testing does not. Students take standardized tests in March or May; schools don't receive the feedback until the next fall.  This gap makes it more difficult for schools and districts to utilize standardized testing.

2) Testing once per year doesn't measure progress in a manner which accounts for the income achievement gap.   Studies have repeatedly shown that the"achievement gap" that occurs as a result of socioeconomic differences is most pronounced over the summer. Consequently, a test designed to account for this gap would require testing students at the beginning and the end of the year.

3) The current standardized testing system doesn't always align with Colorado's curriculum. The high school CMAS science tests, for example, were aimed at 12th graders, but, per student testimony, required knowledge of physical and earth science, which are not  mandated high school courses.  This makes it difficult for schools to tell if students have fallen behind, or if they simply don't remember information from classes they haven't taken in years. 

4) The testing system takes too much time.  The PARCC testing requires students to take multiple math and English tests in both March and May; schools have to devote several weeks to administering these tests.  Are five English tests really better than one? From a student perspective, the answer is definitely no.

With so much focus on keeping teachers and schools accountable, we should make sure that Colorado's standardized tests are held accountable too.  And when the standardized system fails to account for "key goals," like measuring student growth, the state of Colorado owes it to the students to re-evaluate.  We hope this time they will.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Catching up on the 1202 Task Force and the 2015 Legislative Session

The Task Force created by House Bill 1202 has recommended reductions in standardized testing, particularly for high school students. According to the Denver Post:

Although it still must finalize a report to present to the legislature before month's end, the task force agreed to urge elimination of all testing for high school seniors and a reduction for juniors.

As high school seniors, we applaud this decision. We believe that the science and social studies testing that students face in eleventh in twelfth grade causes excessive stress for students, is expensive, and does not provide the state with valuable feedback.

Of course, the recommendations of the Task Force mean nothing if the Colorado legislature chooses not to act. That's why we were encouraged to see that standardized testing appears to be a core issue as the 2015 Colorado legislature session opens. Per Chalkbeat Colorado:

Senate Bill 15-073, sponsored by Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, would require the state to cut testing to the so-called federal minimums and to ask federal authorities for a waiver that would allow use of the ACT test as the only assessment in high school. While such a request was pending, the ACT test would temporarily be eliminated.
Senate Bill 15-056 is a repeat of Sen. Andy Kerr’s unsuccessful attempt to trim social studies from the closing days of the 2014 session.

Both these pieces of legislation are a step in the right direction. While the details still need to be ironed out, we are grateful that the Colorado legislature has recognized the need for reductions in standardized testing. Measures such as using exclusively the ACT would substantially reduce testing burden on high school students, while also aiding the college admissions process.

That said, legislation thus far only targets high school students, and we believe over-testing is a problem for all grades in Colorado. However, we also recognize that the Colorado legislature is somewhat hamstrung by federal requirements. Once again, per the Denver Post,
Beyond that, Colorado has little choice but to follow federal law mandating third- through eighth-grade math and reading tests, and that high schoolers be tested at least once. Students also must be tested in science once each in elementary, middle and high school.
Regardless, we hope that logic can prevail over partisan politics and the Colorado legislature can reduce standardized testing wherever possible.