Volume 2 Issue 3

Board Begins Conversation About Standards, Testing and Curriculum

A brewing perfect storm has gained strength in recent months. Increasing parental concerns
about time spent on high-stakes tests and about student data privacy have blended with the political push back against growing federal overreach into local education affairs.

Speculation is that the State and Federal government want to control curriculum
though the selection of the standards. In the backdrop lies the school board’s expressed
commitment to unanimously approved higher student achievement goals and the need to
measure those results.

Satisfactory solutions that preserve both accountability and local autonomy have not yet been forthcoming. Nonetheless, the board showed its willingness to take on the challenge at its August 28 meeting. The board discussed a symbolic anti-PARCC resolution. Though Jeffco’s board lacks the authority to withdraw from PARCC without incurring significant consequences, such a resolution sends a powerful message to state officials.

The State Board of Education signed Colorado on to the Common Core math and English language arts standards in 2010, and two years later the state legislature mandated membership in one of the consortiums and the State Board of Education selected the PARCC consortium to assess those standards.

Turning Heat into Light

Nationally, the issue has reached high political potency, and Common Core, the now nearly household name has become toxic. A survey of 5,000 Americans released last month by Education Next and Harvard’s Program on Policy Education and Governance (PEPG) saw support drop for national standards once the “Common Core” label is added.

Another national survey, by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup, revealed a large decline in support
for national standards from previous years. Sixty percent now oppose having local teachers
“use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach.” In Colorado, local school boards retain the authority over determining curriculum. Yet the standardized Common Core push has further narrowed the box inside which those local curriculum decisions are made. This narrowing was recognized as a key fact in a Washington Times column jointly authored by a leading Common Core advocate and a vocal Common Core opponent.

Seeking to establish some common ground, Thomas B. Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli and Cato Institute education analyst Neal McCluskey also noted: “Much of the frustration experienced by educators and parents appears to stem from poorly designed textbooks, not the standards themselves. With very limited exceptions, the Core does not prescribe specific readings.”

Pros and Cons

Before the vote, Jeffco board members heard presentations from and interacted with prominent figures on different sides of the Common Core debate. Much of the discussion
centered on the quality of the standards themselves, while neglecting the potentially weightier issues surrounding the locus of control and accountability.

Fordham Foundation national policy director Michael Brickman said the Common Core standards are superior to the quality of Colorado’s preceding standards, most notably
in math. His group grades the Common Core an A-minus, compared to Colorado’s previous
math standards which they graded a C. The previous standards encouraged students to use
calculators to learn and practice basic functions, something he said Common Core has shifted
away from. But University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, who also served on the Common Core validation committee, took a very different stance. She cited the work of Prof. James Milgram to cast doubt on the quality of the new math standards.

Stotsky lauded the principle behind the resolution. She said until Jeffco teachers have
taken a pilot version of PARCC tests and can report anonymously to the board on its
strengths and weaknesses, “it doesn’t seem appropriate for any school board in any state to
implement a state-mandated test.”

Different Paths

Stotsky held forth two other school boards as two possible examples for Jeffco to follow. With the professor’s guidance, local education leaders in Wakefield, New Hampshire, rejected the state’s Common Core-approved Smarter Balance assessment and adopted the state of Massachusetts’ highly-regarded pre-Common Core standards. A clash between Wakefield and state authorities still looms over administering the mandated battery of tests.

The second option Stotsky recommended was Lee County, Florida, which sent shockwaves with its board of education’s 3-2 vote to opt out of state standardized tests. Since her presentation to the Jeffco board, the Lee County official reversed course and voted 3-2 to back away from the radical step.

No district in our state has quite reached the boiling point, but a similar course has been given serious contemplation. In August, Colorado Springs School District 11 superintendent Nicholas Gledich publicly announced his intentions to get a three-year waiver from PARCC. District 11 leaders backed away from the idea when the Colorado Commissioner of Education voiced his opinion that no such waiver is allowed.

Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney, the only panelist to appear before the Jeffco board in person, believes Common Core has raised the state’s academic bar and is essential to provide equitable educational opportunities to the state’s most disadvantaged students. “This ensures every child across the state has the same opportunity to be held to the same high standards,” she told the board.

Remaining Homework

Watney and board member Lesley Dahlkemper both urged caution before jumping to any action and said the Jeffco board should wait for the work of the legislatively appointed Standards and Assessment Task Force to conclude. Created by House Bill 1202, the 15-member task force (including Jeffco Chief Academic Officer Dr. Syna Morgan) is studying the “implications of the statewide assessment system” and is supposed to make recommendations how best that system could be revised or replaced.

Board Chairman Ken Witt called for “some time of deeper dialogue” on Jeffco’s overall assessment strategy.. Director John Newkirk said he had concerns about unknown fiscal impacts of taking a different course around standards and testing, but that the constituents he had heard from overwhelmingly were concerned that curriculum would continue to be narrowed into a federally-mandated, one-size-fits-all model.

While Fordham Foundation’s Brickman rejects the effort to try to scrap PARCC tests, he suggested that the Jeffco board didn’t need to settle on Common Core as the highest
standards to set for students. “If there are specific ways that you as a state or you as a
school district can go above and beyond, then by all means, you should absolutely do that,”
he said.

Some members of the State Board of Education also have been contemplating ways to give local districts more flexibility around testing while staying true to Colorado’s school accountability system. An extensive discussion with key Colorado Department of Education staff members took place at the September 10 meeting. Most believe it will take action from the state legislature to untie the curriculum, testing, standards knot.