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.  

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: