On Tuesday morning, 15 Coloradans will gather at the state Capitol to kick off a six-month marathon of meetings intended to dissect and evaluate Colorado’s testing regimen.

Created by the 2014 General Assembly, the panel is tasked with understanding how Colorado’s public schools are assessing their students, how exam results impact certain education reform policies, and whether relief from standardized tests are needed for students and teachers.

Before the panel begins its query, here’s a look at some of the issues.

Why is the commission meeting and what are they supposed to do?

Since last fall, a growing chorus of voices has raised concerns about the amount of student testing in the United States. The protests became louder as states began ramping up their efforts to deploy the new Common Core State Standards (which Colorado adopted) and their aligned tests.

Locally, the suburban Douglas County School District hosted a series of town hall meetings they called “Testing Madness” to discuss with parents what district officials believe is a heavy testing burden levied by the state. The district wants to control which tests and how many they administer to their students. The school board, working with lawmakers, drafted a bill that would allow school districts that meet a certain level of achievement to opt-out of the state’s testing regimen.

Conventional wisdom said the bill was dead on arrival in the Democratically-controlled General Assembly. Democrats in Colorado have strong ties to the many advocacy groups that have pushed the testing-accountability apparatus. But lawmakers, recognizing increased public anxiety around standardized testing, compromised to form a panel to study the issue.

The 15-member panel will now look at a variety of questions regarding standardized testing. But the big three, as outlined by the bill, are:

  • How do the statewide assessments affect teacher evaluations and the state’s school accountability system?
  • How do statewide and local district standardized tests work together — if they do — and how much instructional time is used to administer the tests?
  • And can the state could waive certain testing requirements for local districts?

So, what are standardized assessments and what are we supposed to learn from them?

Standardized tests, like the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) exams that students took this spring, are designed to gauge how proficient a student is to the standards approved by the state and local school boards.

There are broadly two types of standardized assessments: summative and informative.

A summative assessment, like the TCAPs or the forthcoming PARCC tests, is meant to provide education professionals, parents, and students a snapshot of just how much a student learned throughout the year and how they compare to their academic peers.

An interim assessment, such as the Galileo or MAP tests commonly used by Colorado schools, is meant to provide teachers with information to inform their instruction throughout the year. For example, results from a formative assessment might tell a teacher she needs to revisit the difference between similes and metaphors because most of her students failed to demonstrate they understood the difference.

What standardized tests does the state require students to take?

Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, all Colorado students in grades three through 11 will be required to take a summative English and math test. Students in those grades who are identified as learning English as a second language will also be required to take the state’s ACCESS test. Beginning this fall, fifth, eighth and 12th graders will be required to take a science test; fourth, seventh and 12th graders will be required to take a social studies test.

Eleventh graders will also be required to take the ACT test. And all pre-schoolers will be assessed using the school readiness TS Gold program — although teachers, not toddlers, do most of the work with that assessment.

The state does not require any of the formative assessments most districts employ throughout the year.

Who is affected by the results from summative assessments? And how?

Before 2001, there were few if any consequences for the results from the standardized assessments states gave their students. (Colorado began proctoring standardized assessments in the early 1990s.) But the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was passed with broad bipartisan support, attached high stakes — including an increasing level of sanctions for schools that failed to meet the law’s benchmarks — to the results. Since then, other state and federal laws and policies have increased the stakes.

And now nearly everyone in the education ecosystem feels the impact of the results.

Colorado students are perhaps the least affected by their results on the state’s standardized tests. While some schools may use students’ results to group them with peers with similar academic needs, students can’t be held back a year based on their results and their diploma is not on the line.

Beginning in 2015-16, half of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on his or her students’ academic growth as measured by multiple scores on state and other tests selected by districts. In the upcoming 2014-15 school year, districts have flexibility in deciding what percentage student growth comprises of a teacher’s evaluation. All districts will have to collect student growth data on teachers, but each can choose to use any percentage between 0 and 50 in the evaluation. (The other half of evaluation is based on supervisor observation of a teacher’s professional practice.) Districts are getting the year of flexibility because the switch to new state tests means there will be a one-year gap in the data needed to calculate student growth.

And schools that post among the lowest scores and do not improve in five years face state sanctions, including being shut down or turned over to a charter operator.

Similarly, entire school districts face state sanctions if they find themselves with chronically low scores. The State Board of Education must strip a school district of its accreditation if the district falls among the lowest 5 percent of school districts in the state. When that happens, the local school board may be asked to close schools, merge with another school district, or dissolve itself into smaller districts.

Who supports the use of summative standardized tests and why?

Supporters of standardized tests include elected officials of both political parties, special interest groups, school leaders and teachers, and parents. Boosters of the testing regime have a common mantra: that which gets measured improves. They believe standardized tests hold the public education system accountable to advance student learning and achievement. This accountability system, they believe, forces school boards, leaders, and teachers to take a hard look at their practices and allows them to figure out what and who is working toward improving public schools — what they believe has been a failed system.

Who opposes summative standardized tests and why?

Opponents of standardized tests also include elected officials of both political parties, special interest groups, school leaders and teachers, and parents. Their opposition, however, isn’t monolithic. Many different people oppose standardized tests for many different reasons. Some believe testing stifles both teacher and student creativity. Others believe the tests eat up too much classroom time that should be used for more instruction. Some believe testing is an important part of the education cycle but oppose the high stakes attached to the test results. And others are fearful of the influence of private businesses making a billions worth of nickels in creating and selling the tests while violating student privacy.

Just how much time is used to take the state’s standardized tests?

Remember, the state only requires certain summative assessments that are mostly given for about two weeks in the spring. In previous years, the state estimated about 3 percent of classroom time is used for students to test. However, that’s not counting any of the interim assessments districts and teachers choose to use throughout the school year. And it’s not counting test prep time when teachers give sample tests to prepare students for the testing environment. State officials have conceded the new computer-based tests will take more time but still argue that it is time well spent.

Meanwhile, recent teacher surveys conducted by the state’s and Denver’s teachers unions estimate total testing time — and all that goes with it — occupies nearly a third of the school year.

What do anti-testing folks propose the state use instead of the PARCC tests?

At this time, there is no unified suggestion. Some ideas for possible alternatives that have been floated include a portfolio approach, in which students are evaluated on a variety of work samples; a scaled-down version of annual exams like the PISA or NAEP tests, which only test a sample of students each year, and have no stakes attached; and simply eliminating standardized exams entirely.

What would happen if Colorado abandoned its current testing regime?

If Colorado lawmakers decided to leave the PARCC consortium of states and/or abandon the Common Core State Standards, the legislative body and the Colorado Department of Education would have to act fast or face federal sanctions. While neither the  adoption of the Common Core nor deploying one of the two tests created for the multi-state partnerships is required, the adoption of similar standards and computer-based tests are. If Colorado didn’t put something similar in place — and quickly — it could put the state’s waiver from NCLB in jeopardy.

Is there some middle ground?

It’s possible — and the conversation certainly is shifting. Previously, Colorado lawmakers and education reform-minded advocacy groups drew a hard line about the need for standardized assessments. However, throughout the year, some lawmakers and policy advocates have considered publicly and privately whether the state’s diet of tests is too bloated. The questions appears to be who can cede ground on their core beliefs about the purpose of testing and what policy solutions can be created to keep Colorado aligned with federal mandates, which don’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

How are the new tests different from what came before?

Very. Not only are the new tests taken electronically — compared to the paper and pencil of yesteryear — the tests ask students to do more. Gone are the open-ended essays in which students could write just about anything. Students on the English portion will now be asked to read multiple passages, watch short films, and write argumentative essays based on reason and facts.