Testing the limit: Colorado education officials seek reduction in the number of student assessments | SteamboatToday.com

Testing the limit: Colorado education officials seek reduction in the number of student assessments

Teresa Ristow

2015 Colorado legislative bills to reduce testing

Senate Bill 78 would require the State Board of Education to seek a federal waiver so only one test each would be administered in elementary school and in middle school. The ACT would be the sole test in high school.

House Bill 1125 allows Colorado to withdraw from the Common Core State Standards and PARCC multi-state testing, plus numerous other changes in testing and standards. Goes before the House Education Committee March 9.

Senate Bill 73 would require the state to cut testing to federal minimums and ask authorities for a waiver allowing ACT tests to be the only mandated high school assessments.

Senate Bill 56 reduces social studies testing to once every three years, providing only a representative sample. Similar legislation was proposed late in the 2014 session.

House Bill 1208 repeals Common Core education standards and will go before the House Education Committee March 16.

House Bill 1105 revises Colorado Accountability Measures and will go before the House Education Committee March 16.

House Bill 1123 allows districts to administer only the language arts, math and science tests required by federal law and to stop administering ACT tests to 11th graders. Schools can also choose their own school readiness tests, rather than using the School Readiness Assessment and the READ act. Scheduled to go to the House Education Committee March 9.

House Bill 1124 allows rural school districts to receive the same waivers that charter schools do and allows them to request waivers from school readiness assessments

State and federal legislation requires a growing number of K-12 student assessments, resulting in an over-tested student body that spends less time learning and more time getting evaluated than ever before.
Students and parents across the state are speaking out — some even refusing to test — and Colorado lawmakers are taking note and proposing change.
What happens when students and educators are tested to their limits?

When eighth-grader Avery Harrington arrives at school next Monday, she’ll log on to a computer and begin the first of five Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — or PARCC — assessments scheduled for the week.

Next month she and the rest of her classmates at Steamboat Springs Middle School will take the Colorado Measures of Academic Success — or CMAS — test in science, and in May, they’ll tackle PARCC part two, with two tests each in English and math, followed by three days of Measures of Academic Progress — or MAP — testing in math, reading, language usage and science.

In the weeks between the district’s many assessment windows, the 14-year-old will be taking weekly quizzes in math class, section tests in science and history and vocabulary tests in Spanish.

“You’re just packed with tests,” said Harrington, during a lunch break on a Tuesday afternoon in late February, a day before some of her classmates would take the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam — a national academic checkup only a small sample of students will take.

While Harrington believes testing allows her teachers to better understand how she and her classmates are performing, other Colorado youth and their parents aren’t so sure — leading to thousands of students in the Front Range walking out of class during PARCC assessments last November and an increasing number of parents across the state seeking to opt out of tests for their kids.

Whether students like Harrington are being assessed a reasonable amount and whether the results of those assessments are worthwhile is a hot topic among Colorado lawmakers, who began their legislative session in early January.

The Colorado Standards and Assessments Task Force concluded Jan. 28 that yes, students are being over-tested, and the group left their report behind for policymakers to consider.

History lesson

While testing itself is crucial to monitoring student progress, the frequency of assessments today far exceeds what’s necessary and what’s historically taken place, according to Marty Lamansky, Steamboat Springs School District director of teaching and learning.

“Teachers have forever tested — Aristotle and Socrates tested their students,” Lamansky said. “We’ve always taken tests, the problem is all these layers of tests. We’re swimming in them.”

The district’s double-sided assessment calendar for the year looks overwhelming, but there’s reasoning for each exam students are asked to take.

WIDA Access tests are given to English Language Learners to test annual progress, Fitnessgram monitors physical fitness abilities, CoAlt assessments are designed to measure students with cognitive disabilities and Dibels tests early literary skills.

But as districts are asked to add more exams to the rotation, frustrations build, as is the case with the latest addition — school readiness assessments for kindergarteners that districts must implement for all students by the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.

Lamansky said the new assessment has “noble” intentions but creates an unnecessary undertaking for teachers who must assess students individually and write up plans to help them.

“We’ve delayed it for a couple of years now because we didn’t want to add that burden,” Lamansky said. “This is an example of where state testing has become more and more burdensome.”

New PARCC assessments beginning next week tie back to the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

No Child Left Behind links federal funding to student performance, requiring districts to meet Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks or face repercussions, up to replacing staff and closing schools.

When states lashed back that No Child Left Behind wasn’t reasonable, President Obama in 2012 permitted applications for waivers if states could prove they were still assessing students and making progress.

Colorado was one of the first states to receive the waiver just over three years ago, relying on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program — TCAP —to measure district English and math performance, and the Colorado Measures of Academic Success — CMAS — to measure science and, newly required in 2014, social studies.

Colorado also joined a multi-state consortium to form PARCC, an English and math assessment replacing the TCAP beginning this year.

While the testing is mandatory, results are so out-of-date by the time they arrive several months down the road that some districts like Steamboat believe the only way to get current measurements of student performance is to purchase a separate assessment — the Measures of Academic Progress — or MAP — that provides immediate, useful data to the district after students are tested each fall and spring.

But another assessment means more hours shaved off an already tight academic calendar and more administrative time spent coordinating, proctoring and making sense of results.

Testing patience

When Dennis Alt took his position as assistant principal of Steamboat Springs High School seven years ago, about 5 percent of his duties revolved around testing, he said. District-wide, assistant principals double as assessment coordinators, once keeping watch over paper-and-pencil test booklets, and now, by undergoing training to use online student assessment programs.

Over the last several years, Alt said test-related duties have multiplied, and now assessments are about one-quarter of his job.

Last month, Alt and other assistant principals spent two hours one Tuesday morning with district assessment coordinator Karla Setter, learning how to use the brand new PARCC assessment program — how to add students to an assessment, monitor how far along they are in their test and troubleshoot various problems, like resetting passwords for test proctors.

“I think the amount of testing could be reduced, and we could still get reliable results,” Alt said. “The systems really need to align.”

Freshman English teacher Kari Faulk said that she believes today’s level of assessments pushes the limit of what’s acceptable, without going overboard.

She loses her students for four periods throughout the year to testing, but said teachers of sophomores and juniors miss out on more teaching time.

“If there were any more, I might have some resistance,” Faulk said. “I definitely don’t want to see the level of assessments increase.”

Tests are stressful for educators, Faulk said, and can be confusing for students, who don’t always understand how the exams benefit them, especially in high school.

“It’s important to have this summative data, but we get really stressed about these tests, and I wish that could be reduced in some way,” Faulk said. “I’ve heard my students say sometimes it feels like all they do is get tested. Kids ask ‘if these tests don’t account for anything in my future — why should I take them?’

“We’re lucky we live in a community like we do, where kids still understand that it’s always important to do your best.”

Educators in nearby Hayden and South Routt school districts also are busy planning for upcoming PARCC testing windows, and administrators there say that preparations are challenging.

“We gain very helpful information from the state mandated testing, even though the implementation of the law has been burdensome,” said South Routt Superintendent Darci Mohr.

Mohr said that like Steamboat, South Routt must do additional assessments to get timely enough results to be considered during the annual budgeting and planning process.

“Nevertheless, here at South Routt, we are ready for the upcoming months of instruction dominated by testing,” she said.

High stakes experts

In the bright, comfortable Colorado Student Care office on the top level of Sundance Plaza, twins Abigail and Maritza Wiedel are quietly preparing for their future.

The 16-year-old Steamboat Springs High School juniors are 2 1/2 weeks out from their first try on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and they’re taking extra steps to make sure they’re prepared for the exam, which can dictate which schools they can attend and what scholarships and financial aid they might be eligible for.

In a way, the high-stakes standardized tests they’ve been taking since third grade have prepared them, they say.

“I’ve already taken tests like this,” said Abigail, sitting behind a computer where she’s running algebra drills.

Students like the Wiedels pay $139 a month for testing prep from Colorado Student Care — about $17 an hour according to Director Geogre Avgares — with the hope that their ACT and SAT scores will dramatically improve.

Once they take the SAT this Saturday, the girls will turn around and begin prepping for the ACT, which all Steamboat juniors take April 18.

Though they’re professional testers by now, the twins say these exams still give them butterflies, in part because they will be asked to recall concepts learned years ago and reviewed sparsely in school.

“I feel nervous because it’s a big test,” Abigail said. “It’s a lot of pressure on you to do the best you can.”

The SATs act as sort of a final exam for expert testers like Abigail and Maritza, who’ve experienced more than a decade of assessments already.

Still a couple years from their first PSAT or SAT tests, eighth graders at Steamboat Springs Middle School say that exams offer useful preparation for the coming years, though they’re probably being tested more than they need.

Some students want larger breaks between testing windows, while others want the exams condensed.

“It’s good to be prepared, and to get us prepared for high school, and it’s good for them to see that we understand what we’re learning, but if they could spread it out a little more, it could be easier,” said Avery Harrington, 14.

Classmate Dane Freckleton has another opinion.

“I like it more condensed, to get it over with once I’ve got my mind going,” Freckleton said.

The students aren’t sure what to think of next week’s PARCC exam, when they’ll take a state test on a computer for the first time.

“Our eyes are going to hurt,” said John Hannaway, 14.

When talking about testing together during a lunch period in the school’s office, the eighth-graders were surprised to find that classmate Brian Holguin is assessed even more than they are.

As a native Spanish speaker, he also leaves class for two days to take the WIDA test, something he’s done annually since arriving in Steamboat in the fifth grade.

Additional tests for ELL students or those with learning difficulties seem counterintuitive to Lamansky, who notes that it means less learning time for the students who need it most.

“They get even more assessments, when they need even more class time,” he said.

Legislative assessment

While the district and state’s direct control over each assessment varies, resistance to the high level of testing is making waves in the state capital, where lawmakers are nearly halfway through the 2015 legislative session.

In January, the State Board of Education voted in a split decision to allow Colorado districts to apply for a waiver from the first part of PARCC assessments. While its unlikely that the waivers will be granted based on the state’s No Child Left Behind requirements, more than 20 districts applied, including Steamboat.

The Steamboat Springs School Board voted unanimously to apply for the waiver, if only to send a message that the district seeks relief from mandated testing.

A state testing task force reported to the Joint Education Committee of the Colorado General Assembly Jan. 28 that after months of review they too believed testing had become an excessive strain on districts and students.

The task force recommended lawmakers eliminate most or all state testing in 11th and 12th grades and to consider eliminations in ninth grade testing and social studies tests in elementary and middle schools. The task force also recommended reducing school readiness assessment components and removing accountability measures for 2015-16.

The report concluded, “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.”

Lawmakers were asked to consider the report during this year’s legislative session, and at least eight bills have already been introduced that would reduce or eliminate assessments.

Several of the bills, which include proposals to eliminate PARCC testing, scale back exams to only federal requirements or allow school readiness assessment waivers, are scheduled for hearings in House and Senate education committees in March.

With so many bills under consideration before the 2015 session wraps up this May, Lamansky and others are hopeful districts will soon reclaim their calendars to increase learning and scale back testing.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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