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Buckle Up for the Ride, Colorado: The Testing Issue Isn’t Going Away Soon

Tests in schools, tests in schools. Why do I have a strange sort of feeling this issue isn’t riding off quietly into the sunset any time soon? First, we’ve got the entire hot mess known as Common Core (or maybe we should just follow Governor Hickenlooper’s advice and rename it “Colorado Core”?) and the new regime of PARCC assessments that go with it.

Underneath all that, though, are all the competing concerns and interests. What do we want tests to do? Is it about improving instruction and directly affecting student learning? Or are they primarily useful tools to help measure and compare how different schools and educators are doing? As I’ve heard it said many times, “what gets measured gets done.” So you can’t just throw out all the tests. But which ones do we need, and how much is too much?

As you can see, magical policy solutions aren’t hiding just beneath the surface. Some leaders on the Colorado State Board of Education have tried to find a way to give local schools and districts more testing flexibility, while preserving key features of accountability. But then the grumpy old U.S. Department of Education mothership has all but completely squashed that idea.

Then we have the legislatively-appointed Standards and Assessments Task Force. On Monday, this 15-member group met and narrowed down the areas of concern to oh, at least eight. These are items to study and make recommendations about. Looks like a big task to tackle by the early 2015 deadline. Then yesterday the Task Force set up a listening session in Colorado Springs, reports the Gazette. Among the many concerns highlighted:

[High school math teacher Stephanie] Berns said she would prefer to have testing that’s able to meet students at their level of learning. The ability to measure individual student growth also would be helpful, she said.

“The state forces our kids into the same tests. It’s horrible, as a teacher,” she said. “The state assessment is a one-shot deal. It’s got to start where they’re at.”

There are no doubt legitimate issues to be addressed — with the amount and timing of standardized tests, the lack of vested interest that students have in the assessments, and the long wait to get back results that may help identify instructional needs. To that point, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent Denver Post column left me scratching my head. If PARCC and other standardized tests even provided late to parents an individual student’s results with a breakdown of strengths and weaknesses, that would be something. So his whole lead makes little sense to me.

He and others would do well to heed a smart, pro-Common Core guy like Robert Pondiscio, who convincingly challenges the idea of using standardized tests to measure reading comprehension. Test the phonics and the reading skills, yes. But Pondiscio makes the case that it’s counterproductive to test reading comprehension, while far better to focus on content-rich curriculum.

Berns’ point has merit, yet we must resist the urge to discard meaningful tests, which would undermine accountability and whitewash poor performance. Instead, let’s work toward a system that measures students in a more individual, personalized fashion. Online adaptive testing (in moderation) certainly is a helpful approach.

And way back in 2012, my Education Policy Center friends called for shifting to more end-of-course subject exams students can take as they master material (among other policy ideas) rather than a one-size-fits-all regime.

Even that approach, though, isn’t perfect. Which brings us to the third reason why the testing issue isn’t likely to disappear from public discourse soon. There are no easy answers. And even shifting to a better system presents a significant logistical challenge. I’m all ears, State Board and Task Force. But I don’t envy your job.