State Board of Education says it’s time to talk about scrapping Colorado’s two-year-old testing system

State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and Steve Durham, right, listen to public comments during a hearing on whether or not to end Colorado's 7 year ban on diet sodas in high schools at the State Board of Education on Sept. 14 in Denver. Despite public comment against lifting the ban, the board voted 4-3 to end it. The state board says Colorado should align with federal standards that allow sodas in schools. Opponents argued that sugary drinks lead to a host of problem in youth that includes diabetes, tooth decay and obesity. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
State Board of Education vice chairman Angelika Schroeder, left, and Steve Durham, right, listen to public comments during a hearing on Sept. 14 in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

Less than two weeks after Colorado learned how districts and schools fared in year two of new standardized tests, a majority of State Board of Education members signaled Wednesday that they want to explore junking the system and starting all over again.

Board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, was the most vocal proponent of launching serious discussions of pulling the state out of PARCC, a multistate testing consortium that continues to bleed members amid public backlash.

Durham told his colleagues that he believes this fall will be the last chance to make changes to the state’s testing system “before inertia sets in” and the board is consumed with other priorities. By a straw poll of 5-2, the board agreed to take up the issue formally later this fall, setting the stage for another battle in Colorado’s long-running testing wars.

“If we don’t do anything now,” Durham said, “we won’t do anything.”

The state’s testing system was established through a series of state and federal laws designed to measure how well students are meeting new, more demanding state academic standards. Both the standards and the tests have come under attack from a vocal group of students, parents and others, especially in Colorado’s wealthy suburbs and rural communities.

In an effort to temper concerns, lawmakers in 2015 trimmed the number of tests students take. But the legislature stopped short of ending the state’s run with PARCC.

Durham and a bipartisan majority on the board have long criticized both Colorado’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in math and English, and the PARCC tests, which are aligned with the standards. Earlier this year, Durham in a private letter directed then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall to end the state’s relationship with PARCC.

Until now, the board has had little authority to change the system.

But as of 2014, Colorado is no longer required to be a governing member of a multi-state testing group. A Department of Education spokeswoman said the department has asked the state Attorney General’s office for guidance on whether additional legislation is needed to use a different set of assessments. The state’s agreement with PARCC ends June 30, 2017.

One of two national testing cooperatives, PARCC began with more than 20 members and is now down to six.

For the state board to make any changes to the testing system for the 2017-18 school year, the state education department would need to start lining up possible alternatives to PARCC exams by this spring, said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s assessment officer.

Board members Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff, both Democrats, suggested the board could cause more harm than good by switching tests now.

The state is due for a mandatory review of its academic standards, which must conclude by 2018. If the standards change, the tests will need to change, too. Both Schroeder and Goff said that considering the circumstances, exploring a change to assessments now is premature.

“I don’t know how we can align a system of tests without knowing what standards we’re asking to be measured,” Goff said.

A handful of teachers during public comment urged the state board to leave the state’s current system alone, fearing another abrupt change would destroy any trust left in the system.

“The chaos we experienced last year with the brand new test will be repeated once again,” said Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher from Columbine High School in Littleton. “And students, teachers and parents will be left to wonder why testing is even happening when the data is not useable.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.