Bye-bye PARCC? Governor backs bill to drop standardized tests from Colorado high schools

Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto's morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.  (Photo by Nicholas Garcia)
Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto's morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.  Photo by Nicholas Garcia )
Freshmen at DSST Cole High School. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia )

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Nicholas Garcia on February 13, 2017.

Colorado high school freshmen no longer would be required to take the state’s controversial standardized English and math tests under a bipartisan bill that has the governor’s support.

The state House Education Committee gave its unanimous approval Monday to legislation that would eliminate PARCC tests for freshmen, replacing them with tests that measure mastery of those subjects and line up with exams sophomores and juniors take now.

As part of broad reforms to the state’s testing system in 2015, lawmakers dropped PARCC testing for sophomores and juniors. Sophomores began taking the PSAT last year, and juniors will be required to take the SAT for the first time this spring.

The legislation —House Bill 1181 — would reduce the number of testing hours from about nine to two-and-a-half. It would also save the state about $650,000, according to a legislative budget analysis.

Sponsors and supporters of the bill believe the link to college and a recognizable brand such as the SAT would restore trust with families and students.

“This relevancy will provide students with motivation to take the test and do well on it,” Emily Richardson, director of government affairs for the STRIVE Prep charter network in Denver, told the House committee.

Monday’s committee hearing was the bill’s first legislative test and it faces several more hurdles to become law.

The legislation, sponsored by state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Paul Lundeen, grew out of years of work on testing that began with a committee studying the state’s testing system in 2014.

Since then, ninth-grade testing has been a sticking point in the testing reform debate. Lawmakers in both parties have tried to eliminate the testing mandate or make the test optional. But Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has promised to veto any bill that would do so.

“This is a piece of legislation that I think we can actually pass and make a meaningful change,” Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said. “That’s important in this building.”

Three other bills have been introduced this year to either eliminate or make ninth grade testing optional. Two of those bills were killed by the House committee Monday. A Senate committee is scheduled to consider the third later this week.

State Rep. Tim Leonard, an Evergreen Republican, is one of those lawmakers who wants to eliminate ninth grade testing altogether.

“Even the federal government recognizes the amount of standardized testing we do in the United States and Colorado goes too far,” Leonard said.

Federal law requires that students in grades three through eight be tested every year in English and math. States are also required to test students on those subjects at least once in high school. Under the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states may use the ACT or SAT to meet that requirement.

The Colorado PTA spoke in favor of all three bills that would reduce testing time, but the group said it favored rolling back to the federal minimum the most. Leonard’s bill would align Colorado’s system to the federal minimum.

“If everyone would just follow the federal minimum, we believe that students would be very willing to take those tests,” said former state Sen. Evie Hudak, the PTA’s legislative committee chairwoman.

There is evidence that shifting the entire high school testing system to a set of college entrance exams such as the SAT could turn the tide in students opting out in large numbers.

Lawmakers in 2015 eliminated PARCC testing in the 10th grade. Sophomores last spring took for the first time the PSAT, which is part of the SAT family, as their state-mandated test. Statewide participation rate for 10th graders jumped by 27 percentage points to 88 percent.

Only 73 percent of ninth graders took the 2016 PARCC tests.

Colorado has been an epicenter for the nationwide movement to opt students out of standardized tests. Critics generally argue that students spend too much time testing and believe the multi-state testing group PARCC is federal overreach.

The Obama administration incentivized states to adopt the Common Core State Standards in math and English and join a multistate testing group like PARCC, but did not mandate it.

Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said he favors using a college entrance-aligned test in ninth grade because it would move the state one step closer away from PARCC, a test he’s opposed since he served on the State Board of Education.

“This bill makes the ninth grade test meaningful,” he said. “It changes something that many see as a burden into an advantage.”

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