The State Board of Education ended a two-year debate over how to measure the reading skills of Colorado’s youngest students learning English as a second language after it unanimously adopted Wednesday new policies to comply with a legislative compromise passed last spring.
The rule change applies to English learners whose native language is Spanish. Under the board-approved policy, school districts will be able to choose whether to test students who have limited English proficiency in either English or Spanish.
The board, at the request of associations representing school executives and boards of education, backed off additional reporting requirements that were outside the scope of the legislation.
But the new guidelines do provide parents the right to request students be tested in English, and requires school districts that reject such a request to share their reasoning with parents.
“I think we need to give them that right,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “Districts shouldn’t fight them on this.”
The board’s action Wednesday coupled with this spring’s legislation reverses a controversial decision the state board made in 2016 that required schools to test the literacy skills of students enrolled in kindergarten through third grade in English — even if they knew no English at all.
The state board’s debate over the state’s early literacy law, the READ Act, was often framed more by the personal opinion of board members rather than education research and context provided by the state education department.
Some conservative board members repeatedly raised the specter that school districts, especially those with large populations of English learners, were attempting to sidestep their duty of teaching English — or at least trying to hide poor results.
School officials and other experts argued that testing a student’s literacy skills in a language they were more fluent in would provide better information to help teachers do their job.
Colorado lawmakers passed the READ Act in 2012. The goal of the legislation, often considered one of the state’s landmark education reform efforts, was to increase the number of students reading at grade level by the third grade.
The law, as originally passed, was silent on whether schools were required to test students in English.
Research has long held that students reading at grade level in third grade are more likely to have academic success through the rest of their educational careers. Conversely, students who aren’t reading at grade-level by the third grade are more apt to drop out.
The READ Act requires schools to monitor students for “significant” reading deficiencies. Students who are flagged are supposed to be put on a monitoring plan and are receive additional services from the school.
Putting the legislation into place in classrooms has provided mixed results. Some educators worry the policy adds an unnecessary testing burden on students and adds mountains of paperwork for teachers. Others say the READ Act has brought a renewed focus on a critical learning milestone.
The state has wrestled for years with how to best gauge the literacy skills of students learning English as a second language. The debate peaked in 2016 when the then-Republican controlled state board, over objections from education leaders in Denver and other school districts, adopted new rules requiring those young language learners to be tested at least once in English.
Susana Cordova, who was then Denver Public Schools’ acting superintendent, warned the change would lead to more testing and possibly over-identifying English learners as having reading deficiencies.
A bipartisan coalition of Colorado lawmakers went to work this year to reverse the state board’s decision. A compromise was ultimately reached that allowed school districts to choose which language to test students enrolled in dual language programs who were not yet proficient in English.
On Wednesday, board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, reiterated his concern that the changes would open the door for school districts to side-step an obligation to English language learners.
He said there were only two reasons to oppose testing students in English: “One is you don’t value teaching kids English, or two you don’t want to admit failure in getting kids to speak English … otherwise everyone should be proud to report their READ Act results.”
The board’s new rules could apply to other English learners if the state adopts literacy tests in other languages.