Vail Daily column: Major shifts in testing
Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a two-part piece on student testing.
The Colorado Legislature is in session and (like most years) education will be a key policy area. Perhaps for the first time in more than two decades, the General Assembly is taking a serious look at reducing the number of tests a student takes over the course of their public school career.
Last year, the Legislature commissioned a blue-ribbon task force to recommend changes to the state assessment system.
Not surprisingly, the group seems to be landing on something close to the requirements within federal law, No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind requires testing in every grade between third and eighth and once in high school for reading and math. The law also requires science testing — once each in elementary, middle school and high school — as well as requirements around testing for English language learners.
Those “federal minimums” set a base level of testing for every state. Of note, even at these federal minimum levels, the United States administers far more accountability tests than any other country in the world. Most international systems (including those which out-perform the United States) test only at key transition (or “gateway”) points in a student’s career.
Colorado is one of the most aggressive testing states in the country — going far beyond the federal minimums. This session, our legislators will probably pay some lip service to changing the assessment system. However, the reality is that minimums in federal law are the main driver for the number of tests.
Surveying the landscape beyond what may happen under Denver’s golden dome, I see three major shifts happening related to assessment that may shape the short and long-term debate significantly.
Major shift No. 1: PARCC testing. Colorado is a member of a multi-state consortium called PARCC, which stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. PARCC tests will be significantly different than those administered previously. First, while there is a paper version available, PARCC will be administered (for the most part) online. Second, these tests are dramatically more complex and difficult than previous tests. Finally, the score needed to reach “proficiency” will be set at a much higher level. We should expect to see 20 to 40 percent drops in proficiency rates across the country. Of note, it is not the case that schools are performing worse — schools in the United States have actually never been better, according to national longitudinal data. It is the case that PARCC will raise the bar significantly in terms of what students are expected to know and do.
Major shift No. 2: Senator Lamar Alexander and No Child Left Behind. With last November’s election, Republicans now hold a majority in both the Senate and the House in Congress. Former secretary of education and current Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander has made it clear that he intends to pass a significantly revised version of No Child Left Behind. Priorities in the Republican bill will probably include a major scaling back of the federal role in education. This reduction will almost certainly include a much higher deference to states in terms of the assessments. With that, the old “federal minimums” under the current No Child Left Behind may evaporate, creating the opportunity for very different testing systems in states.
Major shift No. 3: The opt-out movement. The movement to have parents refuse to allow their students to take the tests is not new. However, for the most part, it’s been isolated to the fringes — only a tiny fraction of parents and students have refused to take the assessments. But something has changed. This past fall, some districts saw large numbers of seniors refusing to take the required social studies test. While it may be too early to tell if this will extend to the other grades, the specter of a massive test refusal is more real than it has ever been. Time will tell if this takes off as resistance to the number of tests given in our state continues to grow.
Of note on this last point, our schools and educators are actually the ones who would be punished if there was some sort of large scale opt-out effort. Current laws put schools with low test turnout on “accountability lists,” which can result in them being closed.
Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how and if changes to our assessment system play out. In next week’s article, I’ll delve more deeply into the theories and ideas behind large-scale testing — and why we should critically examine them.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.