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Carroll: Douglas County’s dubious mutiny over Colorado school testing

Originally Posted by The Denver Post on February 14, 2014. Copyright © Written by Vincent Carroll. Read here.

If someone had predicted a few years ago that Douglas County would emerge as the center of backlash against Colorado’s system of annual standardized testing, you’d have scoffed — and maybe offered a primer on education politics.

Dougco is the most conservative large county in the state, you’d have noted, while opposition to standardized tests has long been concentrated on the political left and within the education establishment, most particularly teachers unions.

So when the Douglas County Board of Education adopted a resolution this year complaining that state tests “deprive students and educators of substantial instructional time” while dismissing the assessments as representing a “lower level of skills and knowledge,” it was something of a watershed.

The board is also behind legislation — House Bill 1202 — that would allow districts to opt out of mandated tests for all but third, eighth and 10th grades, and the ACT test in 11th grade, so long as they use state-approved substitutes and avoided “inadequate” academic performance. And while the bill is expected to be amended Monday to simply authorize a study of the state testing burden, the district’s long-term agenda hasn’t changed.

So what’s got into Dougco? Are the district’s goals a threat to two decades of labor on behalf of education accountability, as some critics fear? Or are they a logical reaction by a high-performing district to an excess of mandates that inhibit its ability to pursue academic rigor on its own terms, as the district insists?

My own conclusion: It’s easy to sympathize with some of the concerns motivating district officials, but the waiver bill, alas, is a mistake.

According to a state education department fact sheet, the estimated amount of time needed for upcoming assessments related to the national Common Core and Colorado’s academic standards “is expected to be less than 1.5 percent of typical students’ total instructional time.” And the department says a similar percentage of time is devoted to the current TCAP tests.

Critics reject such estimates, with some of the more extreme claiming that mandated testing consumes nearly 20 percent of classroom time. It doesn’t — not even close — but Dougco has produced a list of mandated tests, grade by grade, with the time required for each assessment, and it’s a fairly formidable sheet.

For example, fourth-, fifth-, seventh- and eighth-graders (the four with the heaviest test loads) take about 19 hours of exams between March and May alone.

The district also claims the “time impact” of state-legislated testing in the spring is 15 days, 18 days and 10 days, respectively, for elementary, middle and high school. Yet there is less in those totals than meets the eye. Technology and other constraints mean testing must be spread over many days, not that all students are tested on each day.

Still, 19 hours of spring tests seems like a lot. Even strong proponents of mandated tests — such as Van Schoales of A+ Denver, who opposes HB 1202 — acknowledge that some high-performing countries don’t test as much as the U.S. And the state has added to requirements in recent years. Lawmakers and state education officials need to take a close look at the burden and see what can be pared back.

But waive the requirements altogether for many grades? That would impair the ability of parents to compare their kids’ academic proficiency with those in other districts. And it would severely undermine the Colorado “growth” model, which allows parents and educators to compare a child’s academic growth to that of other students in similar circumstances.

Is it really too much to ask that all Colorado students take a few identical tests each year?

I’m not suggesting Dougco wants to return to the bad old days when parents had to accept the undocumented assurance of educators that their neighborhood school was doing a marvelous job. Some testing critics seem nostalgic for those days, but that’s not the case here.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the days when data is not transparent,” Syna Morgan, the district’s system performance officer, told me. “I don’t believe parents would allow that. I don’t believe the state would allow that.”

Superintendent Liz Fagin is just as emphatic.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out about what we hope to see happen here,” she told me. Some people have said “we are against testing or against accountability, or comparability. And none of that is true.”

“We are seeing an increasing number of state-mandated tests.” Meanwhile, she added, the district has set expectations that are “just not measured in the Colorado tests.”

All the district is asking, she maintains, is for “a bit of flexibility so we can measure things we consider important for our students’ future.” And the local tests will be at least as rigorous as what students take today, she insists.

Both Fagin and Morgan talk about the need to develop “higher order thinking skills” and “problem solving,” and for tests to “measure real-world application of knowledge and skills.” That’s apple-pie rhetoric, of course, but it’s hard to see how the sort of assessments they envision, tweaked to meet local designs, would provide useful data for inter-district comparisons — or even if they’d necessarily be superior.

Talking to Dougco officials, you hear faint echoes of the “outcome-base education” theorists of 20 years ago, with their emphasis on “performance-based” assessments and their insistence that normed tests often fail to measure true intellectual strength. And that’s no coincidence: Consultants to the district include theorists like Harvard’s Tony Wagner who de-emphasize both core content and testing.

Morgan admires the College and Work Readiness Assessment, which as of a year ago was reportedly used in about 120 high schools nationally, for the way it simulates “real-world situations.” In one of several problems she described to me, a student acts as an assistant to a state senator who has to vote on a bill; the student researches the topic and makes a recommendation to her boss on how to vote.

But isn’t it true, I asked Morgan, that kids who score above 30 on the ACT would by and large do quite well on such tasks compared to students who score, say, between 16 and 20 — meaning the mandated ACT is measuring the same sorts of things that Dougco wants to measure?

“Interestingly, it’s not [the case],” Morgan said. She says universities like Harvard are redesigning their acceptance process in order to account for student creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and resiliency because the “gatekeeping assessments” are not sufficient.

She’s right, of course, that elite schools look for qualities beyond test scores. As the widely published education scholar Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas (who has sympathy for Dougco’s goals) told me, “I’ve come to believe that we’re capturing [through testing] too narrow a slice of the educational outcomes we are interested in. If we emphasize the tests too much, we short-change important parts of student education.”

But on another level, Morgan’s claim is astonishing. Most kids with mediocre ACTs (the average Colorado score is 20.1) would be lost at Harvard, and would be less likely to write a persuasive recommendation for a senator, too.

Mike Petrilli, a widely published author on education policy and executive vice president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., told me, “Kids who do really well on one test are going to do well on most other tests, too. You are right to be skeptical [of such claims].”

Petrilli also said, “I have every reason to believe that the Common Core tests are going to be much more challenging than what Colorado is used to and lots of kids are not going to do well, including some in Douglas County.”

It’s not as if every kid in Dougco is crushing the current, easier state tests, either. Even if around 75 to 85 percent rank as proficient or advanced in reading and math in many (but not all) grades, that still means a stubborn but significant minority of students do not.

They and their parents — and yes, the rest of Colorado — deserve to know this.

E-mail Vincent Carroll at Follow him on Twitter: @vcarrollDP