Colorado has few options if policymakers want to create a more flexible state testing system, or one that lets districts make their own assessment choices, the State Board of Education learned Wednesday.

The board has been paying a lot of attention to testing ever since 2014 TCAP results were released in August, trying to make its voice heard in the growing state debate over the issue. (See this story for background on board member views.)

Among the key questions in that debate is whether Colorado should reduce testing to only what’s required by the federal government, if it’s possible to test just sample groups of students and if districts can have flexibility to choose their own tests.

A growing number of districts have raised questions about their testing options, Department of Education officials say.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond formally posed some key questions to the U.S. Department of Education, and the board was briefed on the answers at its monthly meeting. It wasn’t what some members wanted to hear.

Here’s a summary of the questions and answers. Read the full DOE letter here – warning, the language is pretty dense. Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen called it “a weighty document and somewhat difficult to work through.”

What are the federal requirements for frequency, grade levels and content?

The department and the board basically learned what they already know: that all children must be tested in language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science tests are required once at each level of K-12 education. Colorado tests considerably more than those requirements – get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.

Do states have to give the same tests to all students?

Yes. A state “may not assess only a sample of students, even if that sample is representative of students in each LEA (local education agency – jargon for ‘district’) or the state as a whole,” read the letter. (The exception to this is that a separate test can be used for students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.”)

“That’s a big issue that we get a lot of questions about. Sampling is not allowed,” Owen said.

Can a state use a combination of state and local tests?

The DOE letter says there’s “some flexibility” on this issue, but it goes on to detail a long list of difficult regulatory hurdles that would to be jumped for this to happen.

What happens if a state doesn’t meet federal requirements?

It could lose a lot of federal money, particularly Title I funds for low-income students and IDEA money for special education students. Prompted by a question from SBE chair Paul Lundeen, Owen said the worst-case estimate “easily” could be $500 million for Colorado. (The DOE letter outlines a long list of “progressive discipline” steps that would be used before the cash would be cut off.)

Can the secretary of education waive testing requirements?

No and yes – sort of. Testing requirements cannot be waived for individual districts. At the state level, “the secretary would likely not lightly waive such core requirements absent compelling reasons that their waiver would benefit students,” read the letter.

“We’ve reached far and wide to find any loophole.” Owen said.

“Wow,” said Lundeen, thanking CDE staff for pushing the DOE for answers. “This is an issue present in the minds of every educator in Colorado today.”

Hammond indicated he thinks CDE didn’t find any loopholes and that current federal law doesn’t give states many options. “The key to this is reauthorization of ESEA,” the main body of federal education law that a divided Congress hasn’t been able to act on. He also said changing the testing system might draw scrutiny from DOE’s civil rights office.

“With the legislation we have we’re stuck. … We basically ran out of options for next year,” Hammond said, referring to the full rollout of the new online PARCC tests in the spring of 2015.

Lundeen, who’s leaving the board because he’s running unopposed for a seat in the state House, urged the board and the department to keep researching alternatives to PARCC. Lundeen is not a fan of the current system.

He also noted that earlier this year the board passed a resolution urging the state withdraw from PARCC (see story). Denver member Elaine Gantz Berman reminded him that the vote was 4-3. The legislature paid no mind to that resolution.

Testing is expected to be a key education issue for the 2015 legislature. The 2014 legislative session more or less evaded the issue by creating a task force to study testing. (See this Chalkbeat story for the latest on what that group is doing.)