testing 1-2-3

From CSAP to PARCC, here’s how Colorado’s standardized tests have changed (and what’s next)

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

For more than two decades, Colorado public school students have taken annual tests to measure how well they’ve mastered the state’s English and math learning standards.

The spring tests have evolved since 1997, when they were first given to fourth graders. These days, they’re measuring whether students met updated standards that emphasize critical thinking and are usually taken on a computer or tablet, not with paper and pencil.

Now the state’s tests are about to change again — for the third time in seven years.

Last month, the state education department announced it would back away from the multi-state testing partnership known as PARCC to begin developing its own English and math tests with help from the international testing conglomerate Pearson. The British-based company already helps the state design and administer its social studies and science tests. Pearson also provides the technology used to give the PARCC test.

State officials said the multi-year transition should cause little disruption. Beginning next spring, Colorado students are expected to take an abbreviated PARCC test. Then in 2019, the state will use a sampling of questions purchased from PARCC and new questions it develops with Pearson’s help.

One of the goals of the protracted transition is to maintain year-to-year comparability between tests. Colorado uses the results of the tests to measure school quality, and in some cases teacher ratings. If the tests were to be completely overhauled as they were in 2015, the state would lose a year of data, forcing a pause on school ratings.

How did we get here? Here’s a timeline of the past, present and (anticipated) future of Colorado’s standardized tests.

1993

Colorado lawmakers require the state education department to develop academic standards and tests to measure how well students know those standards. The tests were known as the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP.

1997

The CSAP is given for the first time to fourth grade students. Additional grades were added in later years.

2001

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. The landmark legislation requires states to test every student in grades three through eight and once in high school in the subjects of math and English. Testing in Colorado is expanded to meet federal requirements, which also included math tests for third and fourth graders, and science tests for fifth and 10th grade students.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students practice taking the CSAP in 2002. (Denver Post file photo)

Colorado high school juniors are required to take the ACT, a college entrance exam. Previously, the test was voluntary.

2008

Colorado lawmakers order an update to the state’s academic standards and new tests to measure how well students are learning.

2010

Colorado adopts new academic standards, including the Common Core State Standards. The national standards, created by association groups of governors and education commissioners, put a greater emphasis on critical thinking in both math and English.

2012

Colorado students begin taking a new English and math test, the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP. The test was meant to bridge the gap between the state’s previous academic standards and the new ones.

Colorado becomes a governing member of PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Begun with seed money from the federal government, PARCC is one of two multi-state efforts that built new tests to measure how well students are learning the Common Core standards.

2014

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado launches its new science and social studies tests on computers. The tests are given to students in one grade each in elementary, middle and high schools. The online tests were a break from the pencil and paper tests of the past.

Some high school seniors refuse to take the tests, making Colorado one of the national centers of the testing opt-out movement.

2015

Before Colorado gives its first PARCC tests, state lawmakers go to work reducing the number of tests public school students take. Lawmakers reach a last-minute compromise that scales back testing in high school.

Colorado becomes one of a dozen states to give the inaugural PARCC tests. School districts in mostly suburban and rural areas report a large number of students opting out of the tests.

As a result of the legislative testing compromise, the Colorado Department of Education announces a shift from the ACT to the SAT college prep exam for high school juniors, and to the PSAT for sophomores.

2016

Colorado high school sophomores take the PSAT test for the first time, while high school juniors take the ACT for the last time.

The State Board of Education directs the state education department to take bids for a new math and English test for grades three through eight. The board outlines three goals: make the tests shorter, get results back quicker and give Colorado exclusive authority over the design of the tests.

2017

Colorado lawmakers continue to tweak the state’s testing system: They scrap the PARCC test for ninth graders, in favor of a test aligned to the SAT.

Colorado juniors take the SAT for the first time.

The state education department announces that the textbook and testing company Pearson won a competitive bid to help the state develop and administer its own English and math tests. The company also will continue to administer the state’s social studies and science tests.

The department begins working with teachers to develop new questions for English and math tests.

2018

Colorado will begin its transition away from PARCC, working with the organization to limit the length of the final round of tests to meet the expectations of the state board. The state is also working with PARCC to have student results returned sooner. However, the 2018 math and English tests will be largely unchanged.

The state will complete it review of its academic standards, informing any additional changes to the state’s tests.

2019

Colorado, working with Pearson, will take sole control over the design of the state’s English and math tests. The state plans to purchase some questions from the PARCC organization, as well as develop new test questions with Pearson. Colorado officials said they plan to only purchase questions from PARCC that were developed with Colorado teachers.

Update: This post was updated to clarify that Pearson provides the technology to administer the PARCC tests, which Colorado currently uses.  

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.