Do parents want Colorado to give standardized tests? It depends how you ask

An orange sign says “testing in progress, do not disturb” as students work in the background.
Colorado education advocates are divided on the value of administering CMAS tests in a pandemic. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Whether to give standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic is shaping up to be one of the key education debates of Colorado’s 2021 legislative session, dividing education advocates and elected officials alike. 

But what do parents want? Advocacy groups have released results from competing polls that come to opposite conclusions to argue that the general public agrees with them.

One poll of 600 registered voters commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform, the business-affiliated group Colorado Succeeds, and the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that 62% of respondents supported giving standardized tests if they wouldn’t be used to penalize schools or teachers for low student performance. 

“Parents are very concerned about learning loss this year and the quality of instruction their kids are getting,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The organization wasn’t involved in the poll but cited the results in a press release calling for the state to maintain tests this year. 

Another poll of more than 700 active voters commissioned by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, the Colorado Association of School Boards, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance found that 58% respondents wanted to cancel the tests, known as CMAS, this year.

“As a parent and educator, I know that many parents want to know how their students are doing,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “But CMAS testing will not give us the answers.”

To suspend testing, Colorado will need a waiver from the federal government or risk millions in federal funding. Whether to issue waivers will be one of the first major decisions facing Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of education. At his confirmation hearing this week, Cardona gave mixed signals, saying both that it doesn’t make sense to bring remote students into school just to test them but also that it’s important to take stock of learning loss.

That’s the same debate playing out in Colorado.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, plans to introduce legislation directing the Colorado Department of Education to request a waiver from the federal government. Getting that waiver would put the legislature “in the driver’s seat,” she said, and she hopes that her colleagues agree to cancel testing. 

“If you dig into the heart of why we want to do this test, what information we’re seeking, the most common answer you’ll hear is people want to know: Was there learning loss?” she said. “But by the time we get that test back, how is it useful to us?”

The testing window this year will be in April and May, later than usual, and even in normal years, school districts don’t get results until the summer. State and school district budgets will be set by then, Zenzinger said, and next year’s students will be placed in reading groups and math tracks based on how they’re doing at the start of the school year, not by the previous spring’s CMAS results. 

Colorado school districts have said administering the tests will be very difficult, requiring them to take back and prepare thousands of laptops that were sent home with students for remote learning. Social distancing and quarantine requirements could mean the tests take longer to administer. And they expect fewer students to take the test — especially those who are still learning remotely due to their family’s health concerns — making the data unreliable. 

Supporters of giving the tests say it’s essential to assess learning loss so that parents can make informed decisions, and state officials can send resources to the most heavily affected communities. 

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes has pledged $52 million from the latest round of federal coronavirus relief money for programs like tutoring, afterschool programs, and summer school, though the details still need to be worked out.

Standardized tests were canceled last year, meaning the most recent data is from 2019.

“Why would we let go of knowing where students are in reading and math and say we’re cool with a three-year gap?” Colwell asked. “That feels unconscionable to me.”

Late last month, a bipartisan majority of the State Board of Education came out in favor of giving standardized tests this year.

“If we care about equity, we have to care about data,” board member Rebecca McClellan, a Littleton Democrat, said. “If we can’t see where we are behind, we cannot target help.”

Gov. Jared Polis also seems to support testing, with a spokesman writing that Polis “believes it is critical that parents, educators, communities, and policymakers understand how COVID-19 has affected student learning across the state, especially for disadvantaged students.” 

Public opinion varies depending on how the question is asked. The Keating Research poll commissioned by test supporters initially asked if the tests should be administered “given the disruptions that schools have faced,” and found that 46% of respondents said yes, with 41% opposed, and 13% unsure. If the test were explicitly separated from accountability for schools and teachers, support rose to 62%.

Large majorities agreed with the idea that an end-of-year assessment was important to understand learning loss, target help to those who need it most, reduce academic gaps based on race and income, and help parents and policymakers make informed decisions.

When asked again if the tests should be administered this year, support was even higher.

The union- and district-backed poll by Harstad Strategic Research asked respondents what schools should prioritize most. Fifty-three percent of respondents said classroom instruction was most important, with another 37% saying social and emotional health and just 7% saying standardized testing.

Respondents were then asked: “Due to the challenges COVID has caused, how should the state handle standardized testing this spring?” When the question was worded that way, 58% of respondents said the testing should be canceled and 38% said it should take place as normal. Among public schools parents, 77% of mothers but just 52% of fathers wanted to cancel the tests.

Keating and Harstad are Colorado-based pollsters, and both have earned B/C ratings from FiveThirtyEight.

At a press conference organized by testing opponents, Laura Martinez, an Adams 14 parent and leader with the community organization Coloradans for the Common Good, said her children struggled with a late start to the school year and difficulty accessing remote classes, but she doesn’t think a standardized test is the answer.

“Considering all that happened this year, I question the benefits of replacing instructional time with another test,” Martinez said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the order of the poll questions.

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