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State Board Gets Even Weirder On Testing Issue

Last month, we kicked off the 2015 legislative party together. I promised it would be an exciting year, and that has certainly been the case. But I may have been wrong about where that excitement would be coming from. The legislature has its hands full when it comes to education-related issues, but the real party seems to be at the Colorado State Board of Education.

As faithful readers and education followers know, the Colorado State Board of Education got weird in January by voting (along unexpected lines) to grant districts waivers from the performance-based part of this year’s PARCC exams. Those waivers were slapped down by a recent opinion from Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, but that hasn’t stopped the action at good ol’ SBOE.

For starters, the board voted 5-1 (Chairwoman Marcia Neal was absent due to medical issues) to postpone action on the PARCC waiver requests it has received. Judging from comments made during the meeting, this extension is being granted in the hopes that the legislature will “clarify” the issue. According to Chalkbeat, there are currently 20 district waiver requests pending. PARCC’s Performance-Based Assessment is due to be administered next month, which means the extension causes some interesting timing issues.

Most education folks (including myself) thought the matter was settled with the AG’s opinion, but that apparently isn’t the case. Buckle your seatbelts, friends—stuff’s likely going to get weirder on PARCC waivers before it gets… unweirder. Nope, that’s not a word.

Anyway, because the waiver decision extension wasn’t quite weird enough, rogue SBOE member Steve Durham also pulled out another surprising motion: Eliminate penalties for districts who fail to meet the required 95 percent participation threshold on state assessments due to parental opt outs. Right now, districts who fail to meet this requirement have their accreditation rating automatically dropped by one full level. The motion passed on a 4-2 vote in which Val Flores once again joined Republican board members.

Sounds nice, sure. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems in education. That 95 percent requirement is part of No Child Left Behind’s requirements, and it also happens to be part of the contractual agreement Colorado has with the feds through the state’s waiver from certain provisions of NCLB. Failure to meet the threshold could potentially have impacts on federal funding in the state, and it could also significantly affect Colorado’s upcoming waiver-renewal process with USDOE. That said, CDE has already stated it will use “discretion” this year when it comes to sanctioning districts as the new assessments roll out amid great controversy—a subtle nod toward flexibility that will not result in the same level of risk as removing any possibility of penalties all together. Why increase the stakes?

Durham seems unconcerned with these issues.

“Is it a risk I am willing to take? The answer is yes,” Durham said, according to a Denver Post story. “Do I think it’s a significant risk? The answer is no.”

Durham also stated during the meeting that while the feds frequently threaten to withhold funding, they never actually follow through. While that statement may be true to some extent, a Denver Post Editorial Board column points out that it doesn’t take into account the funding rerouting mechanisms at USDOE’s disposal. The Department could require a series of escalating district sanctions outlined in NCLB, or it could pull the state’s NCLB waiver altogether. Though the former scenario hasn’t occurred on a large scale (to my knowledge), the latter certainly has in response to other issues related to waiver agreements.

Oklahoma lost its waiver last year over a reversion to its old standards instead of Common Core, an event that prompted a frantic process to win back the waiver and avoid the serious issues caused by full exposure to NCLB’s requirements and sanctions (the state did manage to get the waiver back after significant scrambling). Washington state also had its waiver yanked over disagreements with USDOE.

Yes, we can argue all day about the ways in which USDOE has weaponized NCLB waivers. And with ESEA reauthorization lurking in the realm of potential (though perhaps not likely) possibilities, maybe this will all be a nonissue soon enough. For now, though, we are where we are. And I’m not sure rolling the dice and calling USDOE’s bluff with many millions of dollars hanging in the balance is the best choice.

I fully support a thoughtful conversation about assessment. In fact, let’s take a good, hard look at PARCC and discuss how we can maintain strong accountability systems with different, less onerous tests. And if we’d like to change our NCLB waiver conditions and agreements, let’s work through that process as well. But let’s do these things carefully and with the appropriate level of caution.

Let’s fix the system, not blow it up.