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Colorado’s K-12 Testing Debate: What Should Stay and What Should Go?

If there is a single word that defines the 2015 K-12 education conversation in Colorado and the United States, that word is “testing.” The testing debate seems to touch every aspect of education, raising serious philosophical, legal, and policy questions that must be addressed.

Numerous bills on testing have been introduced in the Colorado General Assembly. Many more are circulating in draft form. Meanwhile, the United States Congress is engaged in the onerous process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind).

As the testing maelstrom intensifies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to chart a sensible course through the storm. Yet that course must be found. Our children are depending on us.

Sadly, many have lost sight of the fact that today’s test- and accountability-driven systems, imperfect and Kafkaesque though they may be, are an attempt to correct decades of educational failures for America’s children.

No Child Left Behind’s testing and reporting requirements are in large part responsible for our current understanding of the “achievement gap” between white students and their minority peers. While the requirements for “adequate yearly progress” are deeply flawed, the quantification of the achievement gap has helped drive a nationwide narrowing — though not elimination — of the academic achievement differences between white and minority students.

Standardized testing is a valuable tool in the march toward improved student outcomes. Returning to the days of lackluster accountability and inadequate data is not an option. Even so, overall progress in academic achievement remains frustratingly flat in Colorado and across the nation. It is clear that more testing does not equate to better outcomes across the board.

Parents, students, and teachers alike have called for a reduction in testing. Teachers unions and others have decried the use of state assessment data in teacher and principal evaluations.

While the motivations underlying these concerns vary, there is certainly room for improvement.

To strike a balance between the easing of state testing burdens and accountability, Colorado should return to federal minimum testing requirements in reading, math and science in grades 3-12. English language arts and math testing in 9th grade should also be retained, as losing these data could negatively impact the quality of growth data used to make decisions, plan interventions, and evaluate educators.

Colorado’s controversial 12th grade CMAS test should be eliminated. However, Colorado’s additional grade-span social studies testing in earlier grades ensures that instruction in important areas like history, geography, and civics is not eroded in favor of a focus only on English language arts, math, and science. Social studies assessments should remain in place for state-designated grades in elementary, middle, and high school.

Colorado should continue requiring ACT testing for high school juniors, as this test provides an important reference point for our education system’s “end product” in critical subject areas. If possible, the ACT should be modified or supplemented to meet the high school testing requirements for science under current federal minimums — a move discussed by Colorado’s legislatively mandated Standards and Assessments (also known as 1202) Task Force that would allow for a further reduction in testing time.

When it comes to educator evaluations, Colorado should stand firm with the requirement that multiple objective measures of student growth account for a significant portion of effectiveness ratings. Research consistently shows that teachers are the single most important school-related factor in academic achievement. There must be a data-driven system in place that holds teachers accountable for their crucial role in student outcomes.

Tying teacher evaluations to student data helps alleviate concerns about subjectivity and system gaming in evaluations based solely upon classroom observations or evaluations by principals. While the specific weights assigned to measures of student growth are a legitimate topic of debate, care should be taken to avoid setting arbitrarily low floors. Research from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, a multi-year examination of teacher evaluation systems, suggests that lowering the weight of student achievement gains below 33 percent may be harmful.

Colorado must also remember that data-driven accountability is necessary, but not sufficient, to drive improvement. More will be required to reach new educational heights. The state’s system needs more school choice for more kids, a move that would promote market-driven competition in a sector defined for too long by inertia. Coupled with smart accountability systems, choice can be a powerful tool in the fight for better educational outcomes for all.

Testing and evaluations help set critical floors for quality. Smart reforms can lift students even higher.

Ross Izard is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on January 29, 2015.