AURORA | Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District are advocating for Colorado to waive its state assessments for another year as schools continue to cope with the fallout of COVID-19.
The Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) test students’ proficiency in English language arts and math, and are taken annually in the spring by students in third through eighth grade. Some older grades are tested on science and social studies. Colorado received a waiver from the federal government to cancel CMAS testing in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which at that time had just caused schools to go online.
Now, educators are divided on whether CMAS testing should be canceled for a second year in a row. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, argued that taking time away from the classroom for testing would be a bad idea this year.
“The wisest thing to do is to focus every single second on instruction so our students are able to concentrate on learning and maintaining their mental health until the pandemic subsides,” CEA president Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Children’s Council argued that if students missed another year of testing the state wouldn’t be able to measure how the pandemic has affected their education.
“This year, when students’ worlds have been upended and schools have employed dramatically different models of instruction, they’re essential for understanding the impact that COVID-19 has had on our kids and where opportunity gaps have widened,” vice president Leslie Colwell said of assessments in a statement.
The Colorado Department of Education’s COVID-19 policy stakeholder group was unable to come to a consensus on whether CMAS testing should take place this spring. Both APS and CCSD are advocating against it.
The Cherry Creek Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution at its Jan. 22 board meeting recommending the Colorado Department of Education suspend state assessments for the 2020-2021 school year, saying that local assessments would be sufficient to provide meaningful data on students’ performance.
The resolution argued that requiring “high-stakes state assessments” would exacerbate the mental health issues of students and staff caused by the stress of the pandemic and “would result in a further loss of valuable in-person instruction time just as CCSD students have resumed in-person learning.”
Testing would also require districts to take back laptops that had been issued to students who didn’t have one at home to prepare the devices for testing, which the resolution cited as another disruption.
At APS’ Feb. 16 board meeting, superintendent Rico Munn said that the district has instructed its lobbyist to support efforts to ask for a waiver from the federal government for CMAS, and he has signed onto a number of letters with other superintendents advocating for that. The board did not take any formal action on the issue, but individual members said that they would reach out to their state representatives in support of a waiver.
Now that the state’s legislative session is underway, the floor is open for legislators to take action, which Munn said he expects to happen soon.
It’s unclear whether she will have the governor’s support. In a statement to Chalkbeat from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, a spokesperson said Polis “believes it is critical that parents, educators, communities, and policymakers understand how COVID-19 has affected student learning across the state, especially for disadvantaged students.”
— Carina Julig, Sentinel Staff Writer
Staunch opinions — from both sides
With the Legislature back in session, state lawmakers will now weigh in, and likely make the cal to test or postpone.
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, plans to introduce legislation directing the Colorado Department of Education to request a waiver from the federal government. Getting that waiver would put the legislature “in the driver’s seat,” she said, and she hopes that her colleagues agree to cancel testing.
“If you dig into the heart of why we want to do this test, what information we’re seeking, the most common answer you’ll hear is people want to know: Was there learning loss?” she said. “But by the time we get that test back, how is it useful to us?”
The testing window this year will be in April and May, later than usual, and even in normal years, school districts don’t get results until the summer. State and school district budgets will be set by then, Zenzinger said, and next year’s students will be placed in reading groups and math tracks based on how they’re doing at the start of the school year, not by the previous spring’s CMAS results.
Colorado school districts have said administering the tests will be very difficult, requiring them to take back and prepare thousands of laptops that were sent home with students for remote learning. Social distancing and quarantine requirements could mean the tests take longer to administer. And they expect fewer students to take the test — especially those who are still learning remotely due to their family’s health concerns — making the data unreliable.
Supporters of giving the tests say it’s essential to assess learning loss so that parents can make informed decisions, and state officials can send resources to the most heavily affected communities.
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes has pledged $52 million from the latest round of federal coronavirus relief money for programs like tutoring, afterschool programs, and summer school, though the details still need to be worked out.
Standardized tests were canceled last year, meaning the most recent data is from 2019.
“Why would we let go of knowing where students are in reading and math and say we’re cool with a three-year gap?” Colwell asked. “That feels unconscionable to me.”
Late last month, a bipartisan majority of the State Board of Education came out in favor of giving standardized tests this year.
“If we care about equity, we have to care about data,” board member Rebecca McClellan, a Littleton Democrat, said. “If we can’t see where we are behind, we cannot target help.”
— Erica Meltzer and Jason Gonzales, Chalkbeat Colorado
Parents, teachers speak through surveys
Public opinion varies depending on how the question is asked. A Keating Research poll commissioned by test supporters initially asked if the tests should be administered “given the disruptions that schools have faced,” and found that 46% of respondents said yes, with 41% opposed, and 13% unsure. If the test were explicitly separated from accountability for schools and teachers, support rose to 62%.
Large majorities agreed with the idea that an end-of-year assessment was important to understand learning loss, target help to those who need it most, reduce academic gaps based on race and income, and help parents and policymakers make informed decisions.
When asked again if the tests should be administered this year, support was even higher.
The union- and district-backed poll by Harstad Strategic Research asked respondents what schools should prioritize most. Fifty-three percent of respondents said classroom instruction was most important, with another 37% saying social and emotional health and just 7% saying standardized testing.
Respondents were then asked: “Due to the challenges COVID has caused, how should the state handle standardized testing this spring?” When the question was worded that way, 58% of respondents said the testing should be canceled and 38% said it should take place as normal. Among public schools parents, 77% of mothers but just 52% of fathers wanted to cancel the tests.
Keating and Harstad are Colorado-based pollsters, and both have earned B/C ratings from FiveThirtyEight.
At a press conference organized by testing opponents, Laura Martinez, an Adams 14 parent and leader with the community organization Coloradans for the Common Good, said her children struggled with a late start to the school year and difficulty accessing remote classes, but she doesn’t think a standardized test is the answer.
“Considering all that happened this year, I question the benefits of replacing instructional time with another test,” Martinez said.
— Erica Meltzer and Jason Gonzales, Chalkbeat Colorado