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New School Testing System Starts To Take Shape

By Todd Engdahl, EDUCATION NEWS COLORADO

Educators working on a new state testing system envision a continuously updated “electronic report card” that will measure the college and career readiness of every Colorado student from the earliest grades.

The State Board of Education was briefed Wednesday on the work of five subcommittees of experts that have been studying different aspects of testing.

Jo O’Brien, the assistant education commissioner who’s overseeing the process, said the subcommittees see an assessment system that “measures one thing – college and career readiness.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” said education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

A 2008 state law requires a new testing system to replace the current CSAP tests, although the 2010 legislature extended the deadline for the switchover because of budget problems. It’s expected that a new testing system won’t roll out any earlier than the spring of 2014.

The most intriguing part of O’Brien’s presentation was the description of a personalized online “dashboard” that would compile student test scores – and other work including student portfolios – and allow students and parents to track college and career readiness throughout students’ school years.

The subcommittees see the new system as “online, fast and lean,” O’Brien said.

The system will include an end-of-year test that can be used for school and district accountability but also likely will include interim or formative tests at intervals during the school year, designed to help teachers gauge student progress and take corrective action as necessary. The testing subcommittees see those tests as being chosen by districts, O’Brien said.

The annual assessments would be in math, reading, writing and science in 3rd through 8th grades, she said, although some subcommittee members also are pushing to add social studies. In the higher grades, tests (perhaps end-of-course exams) would be given to 9th and 11th graders, and a college placement test such as the ACT would continue to be offered.

Tests would be designed to measure both content knowledge and learning and behavior skills, O’Brien said.

Board members had plenty of questions.

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, asked, “Has there been consideration of the amount of time that will be required of teachers?”

O’Brien said a technical advisory committee that’s also involved in the process already has raised that question.

State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd DistrictState Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District

Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, noted that parents of younger children aren’t necessarily thinking about college readiness – “That’s not part of our culture” – and said schools will need good parent communications when rolling out a new system. “How do we make parents comfortable with what we’re doing?”

Commenting on the issue of letting districts choose their own interim tests, Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, said, “You don’t want to just turn them loose” without some guidance and standards.

The subcommittees’ suggestions aren’t the last word on a new state testing system. Another body, the Assessment Stakeholders Committee, will discuss the issue at Sept. 20 and Oct. 15 meetings and make a recommendation to the state board. The department also is running a series of 13 public meetings around the state from Sept. 27 to Oct. 13 to gather comment.

The state board will receive the recommendations on Nov. 10 and then consider adoption of specifications for the new system on Dec. 8. (Also, the board has Oct. 21 and Nov. 29 sessions with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to discuss assessments and coordination between K-12 and higher education.)

That decision won’t include adoption of specific tests; that’s further down the road. It’s considered likely that Colorado may chose tests from one of the two multi-state groups that are developing new tests with the help of recent federal Race to the Top grants.

Budget skies getting darker?

Vody Herrmann, CDE school finance chief, told the board, “We certainly have the potential of further reductions in funding for K-12 education” in the current budget year.” She said state budget director Todd Saliman is urging school districts not to spend their federal Edujobs money until they have a better idea if the state will need to make K-12 cuts in the middle of the current budget year. “I’ve been sending that message out and asking people not to make quick decisions unless they have other reserves,” Herrmann said.

Colorado recently was certified for about $160 million from the Edujobs program, which is designed to save school district jobs. Herrmann said some 60 districts have filed the paperwork for their money.

The likelihood of budget cuts will become at least a bit clearer Monday when state economists submit quarterly revenue forecasts to the legislative Joint Budget Committee. Herrmann also reported that CDE is still trying to figure out how to help a handful of districts with cash-flow problems related to proposed Amendment 61, which would bar the state from incurring debt.

For fear of legal problems if 61 passes, the state has canceled a no-interest loan program that some districts have used to pay bills until local property tax revenues are collected each spring. The state has been able to help districts that receive substantial amounts of state aid by accelerating those payments. But, a few districts have sufficient property tax revenues and don’t need state support, so they’re in a bind.

Superintendent Linda Chapman of Estes Park, one of those districts, said the Estes schools will have to tap $4 million in reserves and use a bank line of credit to pay bills until property tax revenues come in next spring. “This is a ludicrous situation,” she said.

On Thursday the board will consider a resolution opposing 61 and two companion measures, Amendment 60 and Proposition 101. (See our Election Data Center for information on the three measures and this story for more background on district cash-flow problems.)

Denver innovation applications approved

The board voted unanimously to give innovation designation to two additional schools in the Denver Public Schools.

The designation gives Martin Luther King Early College Innovation School in Green Valley Ranch and Whittier K-8 Innovation School at 2480 Downing St. waivers from a wide variety of state laws and rules and from some provisions of the district’s union contract. Such waivers give a school freedom in hiring, employee compensation, curriculum, scheduling and other matters.

A school has to demonstrate staff and community support for changes before innovation status can be granted, and the documentation and application process is a lengthy one.

Five other district schools already have innovation status. The only non-DPS school with innovation waivers is Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, which received them from the board recently.

(Read the Martin Luther King application and the Whittier application.)

Statehouse rumors already swirling

She wasn’t naming names, but CDE lobbyist Anne Barkis told the board she’s heard that some legislators may be interested in trying to tinker with Senate Bill 10-191, the still-controversial educator effectiveness law, during the 2011 session.

But, she added, “I’m hearing recently that that might not be as likely.” And, Barkis noted, “We have an election coming and who knows … some of these things are being discussed by people who are in hot races and may not be there to carry the bills.”

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