Hundreds sign a petition asking Colorado to skip tests for English learners

A child’s hands typing on a black laptop keyboard.
A child’s hands typing on a computer laptop keyboard (Carolyn Ann Ryan/Getty Images)

Many Colorado teachers, parents, and district leaders are asking the state to forgo spring testing for English proficiency.

It’s inequitable, they say, to ask English learners, most of whom are students of color, to return to school buildings and sit for exams when the same might not be asked of their English-speaking peers.

Advocates presented the request to the Colorado Education Commissioner last week.

It asks that the state to cancel ACCESS, the test English learners take annually, or communicate clearly to parents that they can opt out without consequences. 

“These students and their families are uniquely and disproportionately at risk of contracting the disease,” the letter states. “In-person testing, which entails multiple separate test administrations for multiple hours over multiple days, places the students at imminent health risk and harm.”

In Colorado, Hispanic people, who make up the majority of English language learners, have been disproportionately affected by the virus. They are more likely to be hospitalized than people of other races and have a higher death rate.

Those who’ve signed the letter include parents, teachers, and advocates with immigrant rights groups and from various school districts and charter schools. They also include principals and district officials, including outgoing Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova.

While the test is required by state and federal law, just like other standardized tests, ACCESS results can play a role in a child’s instruction. The scores are meant to tell educators what level of English proficiency a student has reached, which can inform their placement in English language development classes. The test can also help determine if a student has reached enough English proficiency to stop receiving the federally required services that sometimes pull students out of other learning.

However, state officials had already released earlier guidance for districts on identifying, moving, or placing students in English language development classes using other metrics. Other district or school test data and teacher observations can play into the decisions.

“There’s always a role for that, but what will be missing is that statewide measure that helps to ensure consistency across our state,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the department’s chief assessment officer, noting that district definitions of English proficiency used to vary widely. “Which frankly is part of having that testing.”

About 13% of Colorado’s public school students are identified as English language learners. Every year, these students take ACCESS tests, which measure English proficiency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Colorado’s window for beginning this test starts Jan. 11, when some districts might still be offering remote-only instruction.

Simitrio Carrazco Perez, the father of a Boulder kindergartener who speaks Spanish and is now learning English, said he worries about sending his daughter into a school building just for this test.

He knows that the test might help inform instruction, but said he’s more worried about being exposed to COVID-19 at a time when his district and many others have decided to close school buildings. 

“Honestly I think it’s crazy that this is an option,” Carrazco Perez said. “Why can’t it be canceled like other tests?”

If school buildings had already opened when the testing occurred, he would be less concerned about the exposure, but he said he also worries about losing more instructional time on testing.

“They would be interrupting education again,” Carrazco Perez said. “And it’s another added stress. It doesn’t seem like the right moment.”

Colorado education leaders have already been discussing whether or not to test students this year. A task force put together to draft recommendations could not come to a consensus on the issue, but recommended students skip certain tests this school year.

The group, however, did not discuss ACCESS testing. 

So far, Colorado Department of Education leaders have extended the time districts have to administer the test, released guidance for school districts stressing that the test should only be administered when local conditions deem it safe, and has acknowledged that some students will likely not be tested this year.

Zurkowski, said that the department is also drafting suggested communications that schools will be able to share with parents, explaining the test, the safety measures that are in place, and parents’ options.

“At this point what we’re looking for are good-faith attempts under safe conditions, and that’s where we’re at,” Zurkowski said. “Just like the schools and districts, we’re going to continue to monitor what is happening with COVID.”

Some education groups that have been in-favor of testing in the discussions about other tests have been silent when it comes to ACCESS. In general, they’ve suggested that districts and state officials need all possible data this year to assess learning losses and then start planning a way to make them up.

Some advocates have wondered if English proficiency is one area where students could fall behind. Some districts initially cut back on the help they gave students whose first language was not English. In other cases, this group faced the most challenges in getting internet access, devices, or in knowing how to use those devices to access learning.

But some teachers believe that the information they get from the test is not critical for instruction and that any testing benefits might not outweigh the risks of coming back in person to administer the test.

Deborah Figueroa, an Adams 14 teacher of English learners and president of the Adams 14 teachers union, signed the letter hoping the state will reconsider proceeding with the test.

“I can tell you right now who’s going to pass the test and who’s not,” Figueroa said. “If you’re an effective teacher, you’re always assessing your students.”

The ACCESS test is created by a group named WIDA out of the University of Wisconsin and is used in 40 states and territories. Over the summer, leaders there studied the idea of offering a remote version of the test. But since the test is usually administered by teachers who have been trained and certified by WIDA, moving it online would have placed a heavy burden on parents, most of whom might not speak English themselves.

Letting students take it at home would also require that students download some software. Districts would have also needed to distribute things like paper booklets for some of the writing tests in younger grades, CDs that go with the listening tests, and then ensured that each student had reliable access to the internet so that graphics in the test could show up accurately and so that a student’s speaking portion could be recorded.

Howard Gary Cook, senior director of assessment for WIDA, said the challenges of ensuring students taking the test online would have a similar experience across their various situations loomed large.

“We just couldn’t see how we could agree that that would be equitable,” said Howard Gary Cook, senior director of assessment for WIDA. “That was the biggest concern.”

WIDA’s multiple advisory committees and state officials agreed, stopping the plan to offer the remote option, at least for now.

For Jorge Garcia, the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education and one of the advocates who is leading the request to the state, said for now, many “Black and brown parents care more about the health and safety of their children than they do about the results of tests or about returning to in-person instruction.”

But, he said, many education leaders aren’t consulting with parents of color in making these decisions. “That’s what upsets us,” he said.

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