testing 1-2-3

From CSAP to PARCC, here’s how Colorado’s standardized tests have changed (and what’s next)

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

For more than two decades, Colorado public school students have taken annual tests to measure how well they’ve mastered the state’s English and math learning standards.

The spring tests have evolved since 1997, when they were first given to fourth graders. These days, they’re measuring whether students met updated standards that emphasize critical thinking and are usually taken on a computer or tablet, not with paper and pencil.

Now the state’s tests are about to change again — for the third time in seven years.

Last month, the state education department announced it would back away from the multi-state testing partnership known as PARCC to begin developing its own English and math tests with help from the international testing conglomerate Pearson. The British-based company already helps the state design and administer its social studies and science tests. Pearson also provides the technology used to give the PARCC test.

State officials said the multi-year transition should cause little disruption. Beginning next spring, Colorado students are expected to take an abbreviated PARCC test. Then in 2019, the state will use a sampling of questions purchased from PARCC and new questions it develops with Pearson’s help.

One of the goals of the protracted transition is to maintain year-to-year comparability between tests. Colorado uses the results of the tests to measure school quality, and in some cases teacher ratings. If the tests were to be completely overhauled as they were in 2015, the state would lose a year of data, forcing a pause on school ratings.

How did we get here? Here’s a timeline of the past, present and (anticipated) future of Colorado’s standardized tests.

1993

Colorado lawmakers require the state education department to develop academic standards and tests to measure how well students know those standards. The tests were known as the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP.

1997

The CSAP is given for the first time to fourth grade students. Additional grades were added in later years.

2001

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. The landmark legislation requires states to test every student in grades three through eight and once in high school in the subjects of math and English. Testing in Colorado is expanded to meet federal requirements, which also included math tests for third and fourth graders, and science tests for fifth and 10th grade students.

Students practice taking the CSAP in 2002. (Denver Post file photo)

Colorado high school juniors are required to take the ACT, a college entrance exam. Previously, the test was voluntary.

2008

Colorado lawmakers order an update to the state’s academic standards and new tests to measure how well students are learning.

2010

Colorado adopts new academic standards, including the Common Core State Standards. The national standards, created by association groups of governors and education commissioners, put a greater emphasis on critical thinking in both math and English.

2012

Colorado students begin taking a new English and math test, the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP. The test was meant to bridge the gap between the state’s previous academic standards and the new ones.

Colorado becomes a governing member of PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Begun with seed money from the federal government, PARCC is one of two multi-state efforts that built new tests to measure how well students are learning the Common Core standards.

2014

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado launches its new science and social studies tests on computers. The tests are given to students in one grade each in elementary, middle and high schools. The online tests were a break from the pencil and paper tests of the past.

Some high school seniors refuse to take the tests, making Colorado one of the national centers of the testing opt-out movement.

2015

Before Colorado gives its first PARCC tests, state lawmakers go to work reducing the number of tests public school students take. Lawmakers reach a last-minute compromise that scales back testing in high school.

Colorado becomes one of a dozen states to give the inaugural PARCC tests. School districts in mostly suburban and rural areas report a large number of students opting out of the tests.

As a result of the legislative testing compromise, the Colorado Department of Education announces a shift from the ACT to the SAT college prep exam for high school juniors, and to the PSAT for sophomores.

2016

Colorado high school sophomores take the PSAT test for the first time, while high school juniors take the ACT for the last time.

The State Board of Education directs the state education department to take bids for a new math and English test for grades three through eight. The board outlines three goals: make the tests shorter, get results back quicker and give Colorado exclusive authority over the design of the tests.

2017

Colorado lawmakers continue to tweak the state’s testing system: They scrap the PARCC test for ninth graders, in favor of a test aligned to the SAT.

Colorado juniors take the SAT for the first time.

The state education department announces that the textbook and testing company Pearson won a competitive bid to help the state develop and administer its own English and math tests. The company also will continue to administer the state’s social studies and science tests.

The department begins working with teachers to develop new questions for English and math tests.

2018

Colorado will begin its transition away from PARCC, working with the organization to limit the length of the final round of tests to meet the expectations of the state board. The state is also working with PARCC to have student results returned sooner. However, the 2018 math and English tests will be largely unchanged.

The state will complete it review of its academic standards, informing any additional changes to the state’s tests.

2019

Colorado, working with Pearson, will take sole control over the design of the state’s English and math tests. The state plans to purchase some questions from the PARCC organization, as well as develop new test questions with Pearson. Colorado officials said they plan to only purchase questions from PARCC that were developed with Colorado teachers.

Update: This post was updated to clarify that Pearson provides the technology to administer the PARCC tests, which Colorado currently uses.  

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”