The State Board of Education is weighing a change in how Colorado gives early literacy tests, a proposal Denver Public Schools and others say would unduly burden English learners, produce faulty data and infringe on local control.

The board is considering adopting new rules governing the READ Act, a 2012 state law that focuses on literacy in kindergarten through third grade. The law calls for using tests to identify and help students with significant reading deficiencies.

The proposed revision would apply to English learners who get literacy instruction in both English and Spanish — in other words, students in bilingual or dual-language instruction programs.

Under the proposal, students tested in reading in Spanish also would need to be tested in reading in English every year, too. Roughly 6,500 Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade would be impacted, state officials say.

The state board discussed the issue Wednesday but put off a vote until March.

In a letter and comments to the board, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova argued the proposed change conflicts with the READ Act and will have a “damaging impact” on English learners.

Cordova said if adopted, the rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy.

Cordova pointed to the battery of tests already facing students who are trying to learn in their native language while simultaneously being taught a new one. Those assessments include early literacy tests, state assessments in English and math that begin in third grade, and an English proficiency test called ACCESS given in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Susana Cordova, right.
PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

“English learners have double the work, so to speak, and yet are also subjected to the most assessments,” she said.

Cordova also said the proposed change risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems and conflicts with the principle of local control, “the foundation of Colorado’s education laws and regulations.”

“We strongly believe in the power of assessments,” Cordova told the board. “But this additional requirement will take valuable instructional time away with very little return in instructional value that we don’t already have from other resources.”

Jorge Garcia, vice president of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education, argued the proposed change amounts to an unfunded mandate. He said teachers, students and administrators have no problem with how the READ Act is structured now.

“If it’s not broken,” he said, “don’t fix it.”

The original READ Act rules adopted in 2013 required testing of all students in kindergarten through third grade in English to identify significant reading deficiencies. Some districts, however, chose to also test in Spanish.

After some in the education community raised concerns about students being tested twice, the state Attorney General’s office in August 2014 issued an opinion affirming that the focus of the READ Act is on the skill of reading, “not the language in which it is employed.” The rules were changed as a result.

The rules are being revisited now because of testing reform legislation last spring that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

State board member Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, said the READ Act is the only state initiative measuring reading in kindergarten through third grade, and the two tests are necessary to determine whether the state is getting return on its investment.

Debora Scheffel
Debora Scheffel

“It seems that these rules are designed to help parents and teachers and kids know if they are progressing toward being able to be proficient in reading by the end of third grade in English and Spanish,” said Scheffel, part of a group of board members who frequently vote in the majority. “And that’s why the two tests make sense.”

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that based on conversations with the board, she believes members want to ensure that students getting bilingual or dual-language instruction meet those programs’ goals — biliteracy and bilingualism.

Department staff are trying to craft language that doesn’t go beyond the board’s statutory authority, Dorman said.

After hearing the concerns of DPS and others, Department of Education staff drafted an alternative proposal that would give more leeway to districts. The language confused some board members Wednesday, and questions arose about whether the alternative simply would preserve the status quo. Scheffel suggested that staff come up with third option for the board to consider.

Under the READ Act tests, students found to be struggling with reading get individual plans to help them reach grade level. The law also provides funding to support intervention.

Education Commissioner Richard Crandall, in his first board meeting in the position, asked the education department’s attorney general’s office representative whether the READ Act’s intent is to produce an English data point for every student.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl replied that he believes the answer is no. The READ Act, he said, “seemed to go to great pains” to not say which language is to be used to measure literacy, leaving that to local districts to decide.

“That greatly changes my opinion of the situation,” Crandall said.

He didn’t elaborate.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova’s letter to the state board: