The State Board of Education on Thursday directed the education department to find new standardized tests that take students less time and whose results will be delivered faster.
The board wants math and English tests that will take students in grades three through eight no more than eight hours to complete — slightly less time than current exams take, according to the state.
Colorado’s contract with the PARCC assessment, which the state has used for its federally required English and math test since 2015, expires after the current school year. Absent new legislation, the board is required to renew its contract with PARCC or find a new vendor for the spring of 2018.
The state board broached dumping the politically contentious PARCC exam before the contract expires, but did not act.
The board’s motion to have the department find a new test for grades three through eight was approved 5-1. Vice chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, was the lone no vote. Democrat Jane Goff of Lakewood missed the morning vote.
Ninth-graders also take PARCC tests. That the board did not address ninth grade testing in its motion means it’s likely the state will look to better align that test with the existing 10th and 11th grade tests. This spring, high school sophomores will take the PSAT and juniors will take the SAT as their mandated tests.
Board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said the goal for the board was “to have a test that will serve the needs of Colorado students first.” He added: “The test we have now serves the needs of adults — it doesn’t serve the needs of students.”
Thursday’s action comes on the eve of a change in partisan control of the board. Democrats will have a majority on the board for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Durham said in an interview that the timing of the motion was not politically motivated and pointed out that Democrat Val Flores voted with the board’s four other Republicans.
Durham said “there are plenty of votes to sustain it” after Democrat Rebecca McClellan joins the board next year, replacing Republican Debora Scheffel.
Schroeder said she is in favor of shorter tests and results that are back sooner but opposed the motion because she wanted an additional parameter that would have ensured the state would be able to measure student academic growth.
Academic growth measures how much a student learns each year compared to their academic peers. That data point is the bedrock of the state’s accountability system that rates school and district quality.
“We need to be able to maintain growth,” she said. “You throw that out and we totally undo our accountability system.”
The state’s accountability system is only now turning back on after a one-year pause due to the state’s adoption of PARCC.
Unlike bubble tests of the past, the computer-based PARCC was heralded as interactive and capable of rewarding students for critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Supporters of the test promised lighting-fast results that would be comparable across state lines because for the first time multiple states took the same test.
But critics of the test, including several members on the state board, have said the tests take too long to administer and results are too slow to arrive to make meaningful changes at schools. Some also believe the tests aren’t grade-level appropriate, and that the federal incentives to join one of the two multi-state testing groups eroded local control. The number of states giving PARCC also has withered.
The charge to find a new test will likely be met with mixed reactions.
Many teachers, principals and superintendents — especially from smaller school districts — decried the burden they said it placed on schools. The tests, which are between eight and nine hours long, sometimes took weeks for schools to complete because of access to limited technology at some schools.
And the results have been slow to return to the state, which officials attributed to the extra work needed to get established. Under the state’s last testing system, the TCAP, schools had their results back typically by August. The first year of PARCC, school-level results were released in December. This year they were released in September.
Some found those hardships worth it because the tests, they believed, were academically challenging and a modern measure of student learning.
Others will be upset about yet another change to the state’s testing system. A new test in the spring of 2018 would be the state’s third different test in five years.
The nonprofit organization that produces the PARCC tests could still bid to administer Colorado’s tests. But it would need to also ensure the department will have decision-making authority over the test’s design and administration policies.
Schroeder said she believes PARCC could meet those requirements.
And Durham said he believed a testing company would step forward to meet Colorado’s tight deadline on tests results.
“It’s been my experience that when you have a multimillion dollar contract, people figure out how to bid it,” he said.
The state board is expected to consider what to do about the state’s ninth grade test at a later date.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the state board does not intend change the PSAT and SAT tests given at high school.