Colorado will begin shifting away from standardized tests developed as part of a controversial multi-state effort and toward tests developed mostly by Colorado educators.
The move, one consequence of a contract announced Wednesday by the state education department, will end Colorado’s membership in PARCC, one of two multi-state testing collectives that were supposed to allow for easy comparison across states but have fallen short of that promise.
However, Colorado will likely keep using some PARCC questions in the math and English tests given to students in grades three through eight, said Joyce Zurkowski, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of assessment. Doing so would ensure the state could track student academic growth data and continue rating schools without pause.
“We’re not tossing everything out and starting from scratch,” Zurkowski said. But “we are expecting that Colorado educators will be much more involved throughout the development process — and we’re going to need more Colorado educators to be involved in the process.”
The break from PARCC grew out of a December directive from the State Board of Education that the education department find a vendor that could reduce testing time, provide results within 30 days and give the state authority over test questions and administration policies.
That effectively ruled out sticking with PARCC because Colorado is but one founding member of the group’s governing board and can’t dictate all terms of the test.
State education officials said the multi-year transition on the math and English tests will begin next spring and should cause little disruption to classrooms.
State officials announced Wednesday that the multinational testing and technology company Pearson had won a competitive bidding process to administer the math and English tests. Pearson administers the current PARCC tests along with the state’s science and social studies tests, which are given annually to students in one grade in elementary, middle and high school.
“Because Pearson has been already providing the testing services for CMAS (the state’s tests) for a number of years, the transition to the new contract should be seamless for educators and students,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Educators and students are familiar with Pearson’s systems, so this will allow them to continue to concentrate on teaching and learning the Colorado Academic Standards, which is the content assessed by the tests.”
Results from next year’s tests will be comparable to past CMAS results because the standards, test questions and scoring are not dramatically changing, officials said.
Colorado has already changed math and English testing twice in the past decade, making comparing past results extremely difficult — if not impossible. Officials say it won’t be the case now because this is essentially a contract change. However, more significant test changes may need to be considered after the state’s academic standards revision process is completed in 2018.
Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who led the effort to abandon PARCC, was critical of the decision to continue using Pearson as the state’s testing administrator.
He pressed the department to ensure Pearson could deliver on the board’s directive, especially limiting testing time to eight hours and delivering results quickly.
“It simply can’t run on for days or weeks as it did,” he said, referring to the amount of time some schools needed to complete the tests.
A 13-member panel comprised of Colorado school administrators and education department staff reviewed bids from Pearson and one other company, Questar.
Pearson, the world’s largest textbook and testing company, has been criticized for its extensive lobbying practices to win business from states and school districts.
Zurkowski said the panel choose Pearson because of its user friendliness, superior technology to provide interactive question online and data privacy protections.
“Knowing our current legislation, and our board’s priorities in that area, we couldn’t go backward,” Zurkowski said, referring to Pearson’s ability to protect student data.
Reaction of the state’s announcement was mixed.
Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of the nonprofit education reform group Climb Higher Colorado, said the state’s decision was another step toward re-engaging families in the state’s testing system.
“We are seeing continued buy-in to our system of statewide assessments as a result of ongoing, thoughtful adjustments made by our state board, state Department of Education and legislature,” she said in a statement. “Most importantly, these changes simultaneously protect rigorous assessments aligned to the education standards and ensure continuity for our students, educators and systems of accountability.”
Angela Engel, a leader in the testing opt-out movement and founder of the nonprofit Uniting4Kids, said the change did little to alleviate her concerns about the role of standardized testing in schools.
“This new direction by the State Board of Education is simply another version of a bad idea,” she said in a statement. “Colorado has already changed test vendors, test names, and test styles – all with the same failed outcomes. Innovation and equity require an entirely different approach than administering a test.”
The state’s testing contract with Pearson can be renewed annually until 2024.
Under federal law, states must give English and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. They must also test students in science once in elementary, middle and high school.
Results are used to measure school quality. Schools and districts that repeatedly fall short are subject to state-ordered improvement plans — a process that has taken center stage this year at the state Board of Education. Results in some cases are also used to measure teacher performance.
The state had to make decisions about the future of its testing system; the state’s multiple contracts with Pearson and the PARCC organization began expiring this spring.
Colorado was one of the founding members of PARCC, which formed to develop tests measuring student’s mastery of Common Core academic standards in math and English.
PARCC became the focus of protest two years ago as part of a wave of anti-testing backlash. Large number of high school students, especially, opted out of PARCC tests, starting a long conversation that resulted in legislation that reduced the volume of state tests.
Colorado will become the latest in a long line of founding members of PARCC to leave the consortium. Five states and Washington, D.C., remain as governing members.
Because Colorado is no longer a member of the consortium, it will have no say in the development of the new questions that the group develops. State officials said they plan to only purchase test items from PARCC that Colorado teachers helped develop.