About 6,500 Colorado students face the prospect of taking a literacy test in a language they are still learning after a State Board of Education vote Wednesday.

The Republican-controlled board voted 4-3 along party lines to require kindergarten through third grade students in dual-language and bilingual programs who take mandatory reading tests in Spanish to also take one reading test in English a year.

The change to a rule governing the READ Act, a four-year old early literacy law, angered those who say it creates an unfair burden on English learners and won’t advance the cause of creating strong readers.

In approving the revision, the board majority went against the wishes of the state’s largest school district, prominent education groups, specialists who work with English learners and the primary sponsors of the READ Act. Passed with bipartisan support, the 2012 law uses tests to identify significant reading deficiencies and help students improve.

All four Republicans backed the rule change, while the three Democrats voted against it.

The board majority portrayed the change as an important check on a costly program meant to make sure kids are literate and positioned to succeed. Critics contend the change will effectively double-test kids, produce faulty data and undermine local control.

Evolution of literacy law

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 then changed.

The rules were revisited again this school year because of a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the education department’s office of literacy, said in an email that the rule change will not result in testing kids twice during the same period with the same assessment, once in English and once in Spanish.

The READ Act requires one test at the beginning of year, one test at the end of year and ongoing monitoring of student progress. As a result of the board action, a READ Act assessment will need to be given once a year in English, at any time, to track student progress towards grade-level reading competency, and that won’t need to be repeated in Spanish, Dorman said.

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

For the second consecutive month, Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova appeared before the state board during public comment to sharply criticize the proposal, calling it a “dangerous overreach.”

Cordova has said the state risks over-identifying English learners as having significant reading problems, and robs classroom instruction from students who already take more tests than their peers.

The rule change would result in more than 5,000 DPS English learners being double-tested for literacy, DPS has said.

In an interview Wednesday, Cordova said that giving an English-language literacy test to a very young student still learning the language “has very limited value until they acquire enough English to give us meaningful data” on their progress.

As DPS students are learning to read in Spanish — while simultaneously learning English — the district is continuously tracking their progress in reading.

“It’s very important to state that our goal is for all kids — including Spanish speakers — to become proficient in speaking and reading English,” Cordova said. “Our advocacy is because when students have a strong foundation in their first language, they perform at higher levels in English.”

“Without exception”

Board chairman Steve Durham, a lobbyist and former lawmaker from Colorado Springs, told the board Wednesday before voting in favor of the rule change that in weighing the issue, he spoke with “a number of groups and individuals who were involved in the original passage of the READ Act,” including business groups and education reform groups.

He said that “without exception,” those groups and people “have almost been so blunt as to say that if you cannot and don’t test in English, why bother?” The whole purpose of the READ Act, he said, is to move children toward success in the economic marketplace, and “the economic language is English.”

Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham (Denver Post photo)

“I think we are doing these children a disservice — a terrible disservice — because the chances of their dropping out increases exponentially with the inability to read and write English,” Durham said. “I view this as a common-sense issue. It is hard to characterize it as a significant burden on districts or children.”

In an interview after the meeting, Durham would not identify the groups and people he consulted, “to respect those confidences,” he said.

In the last month, the state board has been inundated with letters opposing the change from groups across the ideological spectrum. They included the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union), the Rural Schools Alliance and the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Also writing against the change were the primary sponsors of the bipartisan READ Act — Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

“The intention of the bill is not to establish bilingualism, bi-literacy, or to identify vocabulary gaps in English language learners,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is to establish the ability to read in the language in which the student is fluent.”

Typically, Republicans on the state board oppose testing. Last year, the board majority voted to direct the education commissioner to grant waivers to local school boards and districts wanting to opt out of a portion of state math and English language arts tests. The state attorney general, however, found the board lacked that authority.

Debora Scheffel, a Parker Republican, championed the requirement of literacy testing in English as a critical check on a $40 million-a-year state investment in seeing through the READ Act.

“A lot of people who work with kids and know a lot about literacy want this because they know in order to track whether kids are learning to read, they need that data point,” Scheffel said in an interview.

Protection against lawsuits?

Jen Walmer, Colorado director of Democrats for Education Reform, which supported passage of the READ Act four years ago, criticized the board’s action and took issue with the majority’s view of the literacy law’s purpose.

“No reasonable person would think that an English speaker unable to read a newspaper in Finland has suddenly become illiterate – language fluency and the ability to read are two obviously distinct skills,” she said in an email.

Walmer drew a connection to the board’s rejection last month of a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy — endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

“Perhaps their only focus is mastery of the English language and not the skills that will truly make our students best able to compete in a global economy,” she said.

An earlier version of the rule change applied to “English learners” in bilingual and dual-language programs. That was changed to “students,” which board member Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, suggested was meant to protect against lawsuits.

“We have had a tremendous amount of feedback against this,” she said. “… I haven’t heard any support for this.”

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.

Read Chalkbeat’s recent story about how teachers view the READ Act four years in here.