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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.