Getting put to the test

To the editor,

My last few weeks have been filled with Zooms, phone calls and research concerning a legislative game combining “Mother May I” with the high hurdles.

It’s been grueling and challenging.

Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Don Coram, and Rep. Emily Sirota and I are running a bill directing the State Board of Education to seek a federal government waiver to pause Colorado Measure of Academic Success (CMAS) testing for the 2020/21 school year. Since most Board Members do not want that pause, the Legislature needs to officially request it.

CMAS assesses language arts, math, science and social studies for students in grades between 3rd and 11th. Students in higher grades will still take the SAT and PSAT tests to be eligible for college entrance and scholarships. 

That’s the “Mother May I” part.

We crafted a bill with a large group, including school district leaders, school boards, parents, educators, students and community members, then planned to present the bill last Thursday. It had signatures of support from a bipartisan majority of both the House and Senate.

And that’s when the high hurdles began.

President Biden’s cabinet notified all states, a couple of days before we were scheduled to present, that it would accept testing waivers, with a few caveats. So back to the drawing board we went. 

Here’s the conundrum: Our team believes CMAS will add undue stress to students who may just be coming back to school, and to educators, who must navigate losing even more learning time. We also believe the data gained will not necessarily be valid. 

In a regular testing season, data is considered valid if 95 percent of students take the test. This year, experts predict a much lower number, considering the number of parents who have already opted out and the number of students who will not return to school during a pandemic.

Colorado law does not permit students to take the test at home.

The collected data will not be available until August, when many schools have already started; the data will not guide any tutoring, summer school curriculum or course planning for the fall.

We suggest using standardized tests that have been given in school this year, maximizing the available statewide data. Between that information and what the teachers record, most anticipated learning loss can be assessed and remedied before fall classes start.

Opponents of the bill believe CMAS tests are the only way to determine students’ learning loss, and that “bad data is better than no data.” The exams are given during the same time across the state under strict conditions and provide specific, aggregated data. Opponents do not advocate for using the results for high-stakes educator, student, school or district accountability.

The federal government will not give blanket waivers but said states could administer shortened CMAS, offer remote test taking or extend the testing window.

The differences are high hurdles. So we negotiate. We are trying, together, to find a path forward, one that gives us reliable data, that doesn’t affect the mental health of educators and students, and that follows federal guidelines.  

Suggestions include moving testing into late summer, when students have had an extra month of learning, or shortening assessments to one day of math and one of English, acting as a dipstick of knowledge. We also discussed emulating an innovative Oregon survey, which considers adding the barriers students have faced at home during the pandemic into the results, or asking for waivers to not include science or to exempt remote learners from testing.

Whatever compromise we find, and wherever we land, we have limited time to get the bill through the House and Senate, obtain the Governor’s signature, have the Department of Education draft the waiver, then offer it for public comment. So much is riding on the decision.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango