Some Colorado districts and lawmakers have long been itching to throw off the straitjacket of state standardized tests so they could experiment with alternative ways of gauging student learning.
A new federal law offers hope for such flexibility, but it appears unlikely Colorado legislators will take any major action on the issue this year.
“There’s not going to be significant legislation,” said Lakewood Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen, chair of the House Education Committee.
The only proposal she foresees is the possibility lawmakers could direct the Colorado Department of Education study the issue.
Why? Lawmakers want to wait until the U.S. Department of Education fleshes out the details of the new law with regulations.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress late last year, leaves the familiar annual testing calendar in place. But the bill also offers grants that states can use to try to improve their testing systems. That could open the door for a states, for example, to use of multiple tests. The law also creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests.
What that will mean in practice remains to be seen. Experts who are creating new rules for the federal department that will accompany the law are just starting their work.
Asked whether ESSA allows multiple state tests, Assistant Commissioner Gretchen Morgan of CDE told the House Education Committee at a recent hearing that there is still much to learn about the new law.
“ESSA does still speak to a single state assessment. … We don’t know yet what to expect,” she said. “It’s going to be a while.”
The committee backed a bill to study options for future state test changes but defeated a bill aimed at making Colorado attractive for an upcoming federal testing pilot program.
The committee passed House Bill 16-1234, which would require the state education department to study possible alternative tests in language arts, math, science social studies and report back to the legislature.
“This is a study bill. It’s a do-nothing bill this year” but could lay some groundwork for the future, said sponsor Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs. As one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, Klingenschmitt has little clout in the Democratic-controlled House. If his bill doesn’t survive, Pettersen indicated the idea might be resurrected in another measure.
The other bill, House Bill 16-1131, called for the state education department to recommend local testing options to the State Board of Education and would have allowed the department to reduce testing under certain circumstances if Colorado participates in the ESSA pilot.
Sponsor Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill was intended to ensure a testing pilot program included in last year’s state testing reform law would be tailored to make it more attractive to districts.
Pettersen said she didn’t think the state needed a bill to do those things.
“I believe that’s correct,” Morgan replied.
The bill was killed on a 7-4 vote, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposition
Testing alternatives might come into play in another bill. Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on a yet-to-be-introduced measure intended to give school districts some relief from state mandates, including how frequently some districts have to file improvement plans.
Wilson agreed his bill also could provide a vehicle for discussion of testing alternatives. But he doesn’t think that will happen this year. “I think that may wait for flexibility 2.0 legislation next year.”
Last year’s testing reform law included a provision creating a complicated, multi-year pilot program under which districts could experiment with different tests, but no district has taken up the offer.
“We haven’t received any notifications from districts or charter schools that they’re interested in doing that,” Morgan told the committee.
A group of 10 rural districts is working on what’s called the Student-Centered Accountability Project, hoping to design an alternative to the current state system for rating districts and schools. The group currently is seeking bids for management of the project and trying to determine costs.
Only two states, Arizona and Florida, are actively pursuing alternative tests, according to a recent Education Week article. A bill that would allow districts to choose from a menu of tests is headed to the governor’s desk in Arizona.