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Education Goal Should Be Less Testing, Better Accountability

This legislative session’s monumental education debate has Colorado policymakers walking a dangerous tightrope. To benefit today’s K-12 students, they must promote wise policy that does not lean too far in either direction.

Vocal discontent with state tests has raised passions on all sides and touched on some very sensitive topics in education, including parental rights. Some progress toward reasonable solutions has been made. The defeat of many bills has pared down the list of viable proposals. As policymakers weigh the few remaining options, they must exercise care.

Crucially, Colorado’s legislators need to stand firm against massive union-led efforts to subvert tenure reform and undermine accountability systems. The state’s landmark 2010 educator effectiveness law provided a meaningful way to differentiate teachers based on performance, and made it easier to remove those who fail to meet basic benchmarks in consecutive years.

Under previous evaluation systems, more than 98 percent of teachers received passing grades. The state department of education recently tested the subjective portion of its new evaluation framework and found that 97 percent of teachers still rated effective.

To reduce the potential bias of using only performance reviews, Senate Bill 191 requires that student learning data comprise 50 percent of educator evaluations. The law recognizes that many teachers do not work in areas covered by state assessments, and that even for those who do, a single test should not carry too much weight. The law enables schools to use various local and state measures in evaluations.

Postponed by past legislative action, the requirement to incorporate student learning data takes effect this fall. Lawmakers should not weaken evaluations through further delays, nor by watering down the 50 percent requirement. Every child deserves an effective teacher. Let’s not make them wait longer to bring us closer to that goal.

Rigorous accountability can be preserved while acknowledging the broad consensus that Colorado students should spend less time preparing for and taking state assessments. These tests provide valuable data to measure the quality of education all students receive, to study the impact of policy changes, and to help inform smart parental choice. Even so, more testing alone does not equate to better outcomes. We need to make sensible reductions in test-taking time.

Discussions about which tests we use are at least as important as discussions about testing frequency. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the new batch of tests to measure Common Core standards, has proven too onerous. PARCC has created serious logistical headaches and extra schedule disruptions. And despite the computer-based format, it does not provide educators with timely, useful feedback.

PARCC is not right for Colorado. Our Legislature should follow the lead of other states that have left the testing consortium. Colorado could begin looking for better tests-or developing our own. Long-term solution to Colorado’s testing situation must include an alternative to PARCC. Unfortunately, neither of the two remaining viable pieces of legislation-House Bill 1323 and Senate Bill 257-includes such a provision.

While both bills contain promising components, one proposal goes too far. The full-blown shift to local assessment systems proposed in SB 257 likely would result in confusion and a loss of useful statewide comparisons. However, the bill’s proposed local assessment pilot program, modeled after one recently approved in New Hampshire, could be beneficial.

Tentative amendments to a different bill offer hope of achieving a reasonable balance. The changes in Senate Bill 223, “the opt-out bill,” reflect the importance of parental rights and public accountability. The original legislation overreached in letting the tax-funded K-12 system off the hook. It created dangerous incentives for some teachers, schools, and districts to encourage certain kids to opt-out of assessments as a way to boost ratings.

Lawmakers wisely changed SB 223, however, to preserve accountability. The latest version removes perverse incentives to game the system, and provides parents with important statutory rights regarding their children’s education.

As the legislative session winds down, lawmakers should pursue a genuine compromise that balances less testing with real accountability. Because we should never compromise on the goal of providing every Colorado kid the opportunity to build a bright future.

Ross Izard and Ben DeGrow are education policy analysts for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette on April 29, 2015, and in the Greeley Tribune on April 30, 2015.