Who Is In Charge

Next step begins in quest for new tests

The experts have done their work; now it’s up to Colorado’s two education boards to figure out what the replacement for CSAPs should look like.

Dwight Jones and Rico Munn
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and state higher ed director Rico Munn reviewed their materials before a meeting on testing on Oct. 21, 2010.

Members of the State Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education met together Thursday to be briefed on the recommendations of a panel of experts that has been developing a plan to replace the CSAP system.

The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids called for adoption of new state content standards and selection of a new state testing system. The standards have been developed and adopted, and the two boards were supposed to adopt a new testing system by Dec. 15.

But the 2010 legislature, wrestling with budget cuts and fretful about the possible price tag for new tests, delayed adoption of a CSAP replacement “until fiscally practicable.”

The Colorado Department of Education now estimates that a full set of new annual tests won’t be administered until 2014 at the earliest.

Still, the two boards now are set to move ahead and agree on the “attributes” of a new testing system, descriptions that eventually will be expanded into the specifications that potential test vendors will have to meet.

Jo O’Brien, CDE assistant commissioner, and Cheryl Lovell, chief academic officer of the Department of Higher Education, briefed the two boards on the work of the Assessment Stakeholders Advisory Committee.

O’Brien said the key concepts endorsed by the group are that new tests should demonstrate students’ readiness for college or work (“postsecondary and workforce readiness” in CAP4K jargon), be easy to use, be meaningful to students and return timely results.

Lovell said what’s envisioned is not just an annual test but also “a body of evidence that will be gathered” over many years about student readiness for college or work after high school graduation.

The group envisioned a multi-tiered system of assessments and other features, including:

  • Formative assessments in every grade throughout the year so teachers and students can determine if students are making appropriate progress.
  • Somewhat more formal interim assessments, perhaps quarterly, in every grade.
  • An annual test in grades 3-11, replacing the CSAP, which tests reading, writing, math and science. “This is the one for the record, and it counts,” O’Brien said.
  • Somewhat less formal assessments of students in preschool through 2nd grade.
  • A college admissions test in the 11th grade.
  • Universal use of individual career and academic plans starting in 8th grade.
  • An online “dashboard” of some sort that would allow parents and students to track progress toward postsecondary and workforce readiness through their school careers.

The use of online tests was discussed repeatedly during the stakeholder review, but that subject was touched on only briefly at Thursday’s meeting.

Formative and interim testing is common in most schools now – think “quizzes” – but what’s envisioned is a more formal and standardized system that theoretically will make it easier for teachers to recognize and help students who are falling behind. “The idea is to make things of a higher quality and systematic,” O’Brien said.

Similarly, ICAPs are used in many Colorado schools, and all Colorado 11th graders currently take the ACT test.

Members of the two boards had plenty of questions, ranging from cost to practicality.

SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, wondered which elements of a new testing system that state can mandate for school districts, given Colorado’s local control structure.

CCHE Chair Jim Polsfut questioned how hard it will be to implement the new system’s philosophy of having students demonstrate knowledge, not just choose correct answers on multiple-choice tests. “Can we do this?”

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones noted that the boards will have to consider practical issues – like cost – as they do their work. “I’m not sure we have the resources to actually build that [full] system.”

One issue that wasn’t discussed Thursday was the possibility that Colorado may choose one of the multi-state tests now being developed by two national groups rather than hire a testing company to build Colorado-only assessments. Participating in a multi-state system is seen as a way to reduce the cost of replacing the CSAPs.

The board and the commission meet next on Nov. 29 to discuss the issues further.

Choosing a new testing system is only one task assigned by the landmark CAP4K law. Formal descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness already have been adopted, as have the content standards. But still to be done are creation of a system of “endorsed” high school diplomas that reflect different levels of student readiness, alignment of state college admissions requirements to the new K-12 system and overall of teacher training programs.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.