Colorado just reduced standardized testing this year but still needs federal waiver for testing to actually change

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado legislators have slashed the amount of state testing required of students this year because of the pandemic, only requiring them to take a math or a literacy test, but not both.

Reduced testing is not a sure thing yet though, as there are both federal and state requirements to deal with. This bill took care of the state requirements, but the Colorado Department of Education still needs a waiver from the federal government to implement changes.

“Every state that wants to change their assessments is having to do this and so far, as of last week, the (U.S.) Department of Education has not responded to any of those waivers,” said Jeremy Meyer, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Education. “We don’t know what is going to happen.”

Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 21-1161 Tuesday, which suspends English language arts testing for students in fourth, sixth and eighth grades and math testing in third, fifth and seventh grades. It also suspends science and social studies testing at all grade levels.

Some local school officials describe the move as a “double-edged sword,” decreasing demands on students but forcing the district to miss out on some of the data state testing provides.

“Given the school year, the circumstances and the time that I believe we should be focusing on more teaching and learning, I think it is a good idea to cut it back,” said Christy Sinner, Hayden School District superintendent. “However, if the assessments are used appropriately, which is for growth, there is also that important component to it.”

Meyer said there is no timeline for when the state education department will get an answer from federal education officials on whether they can reduce testing or not, and if they do not get the waiver, “we’ll have to deal with that when and if it happens.”

The social studies test has been suspended officially because there are no federal requirements for this testing, and the bill will not change anything to do with PSAT and SAT testing for high school students.

For some larger school districts, the testing window starts as soon as Monday. Meyer said CDE is recommending districts try to be aware of the fluid situation and be prepared to accommodate either outcome.

“We have encouraged them to plan accordingly in a way that best meets their needs,” Meyer said.

Sinner said Hayden is proceeding as if it will have the full gamut of testing and will adjust if the waiver does come through.

“It is kind of putting school districts in a bind of do we plan, do we not plan? What do we do?” Sinner said.

In addition to reducing the number to tests, the bill also prevents school districts from using academic growth or student performance data to evaluate teachers for this school year.

Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks said reducing the volume of testing would allow more time for in-person learning and could lessen some of the worries that scores would be used to evaluate teachers and districts in a year when learning was flipped upside down.

Another worry for Meeks was how the district would deal with a COVID-19 case and related quarantine just as students were starting to test.

Rim Watson, superintendent of the South Routt School District, said he is OK with testing being reduced this year, but he said the accountability testing provides is important.

“I want our students to be assessed, so that we can determine to our public that we are being successful educating students,” Watson said. “We don’t just do internal proof of competency; I like an external proof of competency. So as long as there is some testing in place that does that, I am good.”

School districts have other tools they use to assess student growth, such as the nationally normed iReady and Dibels tests, but Watson said state testing has the advantage of allowing a comparison of schools. This year provides the opportunity to see which school districts did better at educating their students through the pandemic, Watson said.

“Let’s see how well everyone did educating kids in a COVID year and learn from those who did it better than anyone else,” Watson said, adding that even with reduced testing, they will be able to get data to make these comparisons.

Sinner said the reduced testing would not negatively impact the district’s ability to assess students’ needs as there are other tools that can be used. The same is true in Steamboat, Meeks said, as these other tests used with state testing data collected this year will be a large part of figuring out how to make up for what may have been lost in the classroom during the pandemic.

“The academic recovery part of this is going to go probably into next school year, so the more data we get the better,” Meeks said.

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