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Colorado Task Force Recommends Cutbacks in Testing

A Colorado task force recommended yesterday that Colorado throw out its state-mandated tests for 11th and 12th graders in English/language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science, and streamline its testing of kindergarten students.

In a report to the state legislature's joint education committee, the panel also suggests that lawmakers consider dumping math and English/language arts tests in 9th grade, and social studies tests in 4th and 7th grades.

Federal accountability requirements would be met by keeping the state's current 10th grade English/language arts and math test. The only other required test for high school students would be the ACT college entrance exam.

Federally mandated science-testing requirements in high school would be met by having students take a version of the ACT that is enhanced with more science questions. Colorado students take science tests in 5th and 8th grades, too, but the panel did not recommend changing that schedule. In addition to mandating literacy and math tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school, the No Child Left Behind Act requires science tests once at each of three grade spans: elementary, middle, and high school.

The task force, created by the state legislature in response to concerns about testing, suggested reducing the number of tests given to kindergarten students as well. But it acknowledged that NCLB ties the state's hands in cutting back testing.

"... the Task Force recognizes that the State's ability to change the current assessment system is severely restricted by the current federal testing requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)," the panel said in its report. "There was consensus that, in the short term, the state must adhere to these federal requirements in order to avoid the fiscal and other consequences of noncompliance."

The group, composed of educators, parents, and members of the business community, urged state officials to clarify parents' rights to keep their children out of mandated tests, and to allow districts and schools to be "held harmless" from any penalties incurred from failing to meet the NCLB rule that schools must test 95 percent of their students.

Colorado lawmakers spent several hours hearing the report's findings yesterday, and discussing what they would do. The Denver Post quoted one lawmaker as saying that legislation to reduce testing would be introduced very soon.

One intriguing area of the task force report concerns how to strike an appropriate balance between state-mandated testing and the tests that local schools and districts choose to administer on their own. A major study of Colorado's various layers of state and local testing, conducted by veteran consultants Augenblick, Palaich & Associates, found that far more time is spent on local tests, but educators view those assessments as more valuable to instruction.

Indeed, getting that balance right is one of the issues that the assessment task force found to be difficult and elusive. It recommended that a special advisory board be set up to resolve that dilemma, along with a handful of other testing questions that remain unresolved. That list could serve as a powerful and terse summary of most states' current assessment struggles. Take a look:

  • To what extent should emphasis be given to state assessments relative to locally chosen/designed assessments? What's the appropriate balance?
  • To what extent should state assessments focus on district and school accountability? To what extent should state assessments be used to identify individual student growth and proficiency? To what extent are local assessments and processes able to achieve this task?
  • How much flexibility can districts and schools have to choose their own assessments and still retain the principles of accountability, comparability, growth, and equity?
  • When a parent or guardian exercises his or her right to refuse to have their student participate in an assessment, how should this be managed by districts and schools? How should this be factored into district and school accountability?
  • In light of concerns about technology-based tests including equity, access, and developmental appropriateness, to what extent should future assessment systems be technology-based versus administered through paper and pencil?
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