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.  

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.