It's a Challenge, But Colorado Has to Raise the Bar For Our Students

Pop quiz: If you set a goal for yourself, let’s say running a mile in under eight minutes, and you realize the goal will be challenging to meet, do you: A) Adjust your training regimen to improve your performance in order to meet your goal? or B) Decide eight minutes is too hard and change the goal to something easier? At least one member of Colorado’s State Board of Education apparently would pick option B. That’s the logical way to interpret what board member Debora Scheffel had to say during a presentation on the state’s performance plan and student achievement goals. Scheffel, a Douglas County Republican, is also a vocal critic of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. Colorado students took PARCC’s Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests for the first time last school year. Scheffel suggested that the state would fail to meet its student goals for reading, writing and math proficiency because the tests were too hard. The CMAS test, Scheffel said, “is very linguistically dense,” primarily because questions are long:
We have lots of (English-language learner) kids in Colorado. And lots of kids who don't have the linguistic sophistication to even unpack the question. So we have a goal here that more kids meet proficiency in these areas. Yet in some ways we are creating an artifact that means less kids will meet these goals because of the test itself.
Scheffel’s comments came after Colorado Department of Education (CDE) staff walked the board through its 2015-16 performance plan during the board’s October meeting. The annual plan, which was submitted to the state last June, is a requirement of the State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government (SMART) Act, which was revised in 2013. The plan focuses on all aspects of CDE’s operations, but it was the goals centered on student performance on state tests that caught Scheffel’s attention. In all subject areas and among all subgroups of students, CDE has set goals of higher scores between now and 2018. Because the CMAS tests are more rigorous than the state’s tests they are replacing, most experts expect an initial drop in scores as students, teachers and schools become acclimated to the tougher tests.

Raising the Bar

Meeting CDE’s goals will be challenging, no doubt about it. But isn’t that the point—stretching yourself to go farther and perhaps faster than you thought possible? Here are some of Scheffel’s other remarks on CDE’s test result goals:
All of this, if you just read it at face value makes perfect sense. But when you unpack it and look underneath it there are very deliberate reasons why we are having trouble closing these (achievement) gaps. And some of it is test artifact. And unless we are teaching to the test and teaching kids to take the questions and literally diagram them, we are not going to meet these goals. Closing the achievement gaps is what we want, it's what the public wants, and yet the policies and the tools that sometimes are chosen to be used are directly in opposition to reaching these goals. When we have things implicit in the goals that literally fly in the face of achieving them, I think that's worth a discussion.
There’s also the distinct possibility that the PARCC/CMAS tests do a better job than their predecessors measuring the skills and knowledge students need to become engaged and productive members of society. If that’s the case, then suggesting that raising the bar could somehow be damaging seems a classic case of backwards thinking. And, as radical as this sounds, perhaps more attention needs to be focused instead on providing adequate services to English language learners and other students facing academic challenges, rather than on dumbing down tests or setting more modest goals. Scheffel’s remarks mirror harsher attacks on PARCC that groups opposed to “over-testing” have launched in recent months. Late in 2014, Save Our Schools New Jersey put forth 12 reasons why it opposed PARCC. Here’s number nine:
PARCC and other high-stakes standardized tests are abusive to our children. Reports of students throwing up during high-stakes standardized tests or inflicting harm to themselves as a result of test stress are already common.
Last May, a consortium of 12 civil rights advocacy organizations, including the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund took issue with these kinds of arguments:
The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.
And, the consortium’s statement concludes:
We cannot fix what we cannot measure. And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.
Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He's currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at Write. Edit. Think.
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is a veteran Colorado journalist who has covered education at the Denver Post and as the former editor and co-founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat. He's currently a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant at Write. Edit. Think.

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