Volume 2 Issue 3

Colorado’s Testing Machine: Too Many Moving Parts

by Dr. Paula Noonan

Student assessments in Colorado’s public schools are money machines for vendors. Taken
together they are a Rube Goldberg creation.

Public schools use three types of assessments: ongoing, which are known as formative
assessments; interim, which are correlated to end-of-year summative tests; and summative,
which are most often standardized assessments. Colorado’s kids are tested in one of these forms almost all the time. (See chart below.)

Concern about over testing has been around for awhile. But with new standardized tests
coming in 2015, parents, teachers, and students have good reason to pay special attention.

shutterstock_77123362 children with computers.jpg

New Assessments
Colorado will use new summative tests in English and math, based on Colorado’s 2010
standards, and built by the UK’s Pearson Company for the Partnership for Assessment
of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). Their use has been authorized by the State
Board of Education and the Colorado Legislature.

The new assessments are supposed to be more rigorous than our previous TCAP tests.
Colorado began testing social studies skills in 2014 using an assessment specifically
developed for our state. Students in fourth, seventh, and 12th grades will take this
assessment. Students in fifth, eighth, and 12th grades will take the newly revised Colorado
science assessment.

Up to now standardized assessments, often labeled “high-stakes tests,” have been used
to develop school and district improvement plans. Because of the passage of Senate Bill
191 in 2010, the assessments are part of what will be used to evaluate teacher and principal

A bill passed in the 2014 legislative session created the HB14-1202 Standards and Assessments Task Force to assess the assessments. The 1202 task force is evaluating the “costs” of public school testing in instructional time, resources, and dollars. This committee has met three times and has a contract with a consultant to perform the third statewide study on public school assessments since 2012.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) conducted the first study in 2012. The study’s
scope, defined by the Colorado Department of Education and administered by the Colorado
Legacy Foundation (now known as the Colorado Education Initiative), did not produce
an actionable report. 

For example, APA calculated the time of the state’s kindergarten reading readiness assessment as 30 minutes. But in Jeffco schools, kindergartners lose two full school days for this assessment. The discrepancy is because students meet with their teacher one-on-one for 30 minutes, then go home so other students can have their 30 minutes with the teacher.

Data Collection and Vendors
In today’s environment, due to Colorado’s 2012 READ Act, students in pre-K through third grade are assessed using a program called TS Gold. The software-based application, located on smart phones and tablets, allows teachers to make videos of students to determine their stage of “reading readiness.”

These “data points” are stored and evaluated to assess how well preschools prepare kids
for kindergarten and how well kindergarten prepares kids for first grade, etc. The students’
“behaviors” define their readiness. Of course, all the videotaping, usually stored somewhere
in the “cloud,” may or may not be secure and protected for student privacy. In Jeffco, the
board has limited the implementation of this assessment due to student privacy concerns.

Once kids get to third grade, and hopefully can read well enough to take a test, they
enter the testing Rube Goldberg machine that Colorado has become. The system works from
the end backwards. That is, students take the formative ongoing assessments to figure
out what kids have learned. These tests are designed to tell students, parents, and teachers
whether the students have mastered the skills that will be tested on year-end exams.

Formative tests may be purchased from vendors, which enriches curriculum content
providers such as Pearson and McGraw Hill, or they may be built by districts. Jeffco does some
of both. Denver Public Schools builds many of their own assessments.

Interim assessments, those tests specifically correlated to the end-of-year standardized
tests, are often vendor-provided. Examples of tests include: DIBELS, GOLD assessment,
Acuity, NWEA MAPS, Literacy by Design, mClass, Renaissance STAR, CMAS Readiness,
CBM and EOC, CoALT, and ACCESS for ELA.

These are designed to help educators understand what the results will be on the year-end  summative assessments. Often, if the indicators are not going in the right direction, it causes conversations about what needs to change in order for students to acquire the skills they are lacking.

Testing Mismatch
Summative assessments are nearly always purchased from outside vendors. For math and
reading the PARCC tests, part of the Colorado Measures of Academic Progress (CMAS), will
be given in March and April to students in third to 10th grade. High schools also use the
ACT as the 11th grade summative test. Seniors take the summative CMAS social studies and
science tests.

It’s not unusual for kids to take tests based on content they don’t know or content they
learned years earlier. For example, if a sixth grader has third grade reading or writing skills,
that child will still be tested on sixth grade content, regardless.

Moreover, if that sixth grader tests ”unsatisfactory” or “partially proficient” in reading or math, he or she may not receive enough early intervention to get up to speed, as demonstrated by the fact that the student wasn’t proficient in fourth and fifth grade. To move a sixth grader from a third grade reading level to sixth grade reading requires $6,000 and some 80 one-on-one tutoring hours in the private sector.

On the upper side, kids who take algebra or geometry in sixth or seventh grade are not tested on algebra and geometry until much later. They take the regular sixth or seventh grade math standardized tests, so these standardized assessments are essentially irrelevant to their skill sets.

Confusion and Costs
In high school, the system gets very confusing, as tests may or may not be related to course content. Students in Advanced Placement classes may be double-tested in content from the PARCC tests and CMAS social studies and science tests.

The new standardized PARCC tests are best taken online using tablets. But many schools across the states don’t have enough equipment, so students are phased through the tests. If a group of fourth graders takes the tests one day, and another the next day, and the tests are taken in computer labs, the labs may be unavailable to all students for weeks at a time.

The Standards and Assessment task force has its hands full trying to figure out all the costs. A proper analysis of the costs should include test expense, devices, lost instructional time, professional training for teachers who administer the tests, training and administration work for IT staff who manage the back-end systems, testing security processes, proctors, and Internet infrastructure.

The APA study will not interview or survey parents, so their burdens will not be built into the ultimate calculation. These expenses may include day care for young students who are booted from school because of testing, worry about middle school and high school students who are not in school because of testing, emotional upset and tears from students who fear they didn’t test well, and the problem of indifference to testing of some students, especially those in high school, who just don’t care anymore.

It’s no wonder teachers, parents, and students inside the Rube Goldberg machine are unhappy. But that doesn’t mean the state will cut back. Vendors, policymakers, bureaucracies, and politicians created the machine, and it seems they have a vested interested in keeping it going. They spend and make money on the machine, and gain their authority from its vastness.

Dr. Noonan is a former member of the Jeffco Board of Education, 2009–2013.