It's the end of an era for educational policy in Colorado.
Public school teachers and their students will be immersed in a new world of standardized testing, starting this academic year.
As teachers pore over spring assessment results the Colorado Department of Education released last week, administrators are looking toward the 2014-15 tests, which follow a belief that public education should be standardized across the country, rather than on a statewide basis.
Instead of measuring rote learning, students' critical thinking ability will be put to the test, with the thought that if students grasp how to identify problems and arrive at solutions, they will be better prepared for college or the workforce.
But the new tests, which are more rigorous and designed to go hand in hand with new academic standards, have been met with some anxiety.
Some members of the Colorado Board of Education wondered this past week how students will fare, given what the latest standardized test results show: Statewide, the percentage of students scoring advanced and proficient decreased from 2013, across all grades tested - third through 10th - and in all subjects.
"We cannot keep meeting year after year and not seeing results," said board member Elaine Gantz Berman, who represents Denver.
A period of transition
Aligning new classroom instruction with the new tests and a new educator effectiveness evaluation system that starts next school year should produce results, said Joyce Zurkowski, the CDE's executive director of assessments.
"Within a couple of years, we should see movement in scores," she said.
Feedback from field tests conducted last spring for the new tests shows that 38 percent of students indicated that most to all of the items on the math assessment included content that had not been learned in school, and 65 percent said the math assessment was harder than most of their schoolwork.
Changing to the new system will be a struggle, everyone agrees, particularly since the tests will be taken online rather than with pencil and paper.
In field testing last spring, 48 percent of students who took the math assessment said they preferred paper, and 52 percent said they'd rather take it on a computer.
One concern is that teaching to the test will become even more obtrusive to classroom learning. While district administrators say standardized testing is just one measure of teachers' abilities and students' mastery of the subjects, schools can literally live or die by the test.
Under a downsizing and realignment plan, Colorado Springs School District 11 closed 13 schools in the past five years. Among the criteria: academic achievement.
A state-authorized charter school in Colorado Springs, Scholars to Leaders, closed in May after officials from the Colorado Charter School Institute deemed it "not academically viable or financially sustainable." The K-8 school had 244 students and had struggled academically for four of the past five years.
In the spring of 2013, Scholars to Leaders produced standardized test scores that placed it in the bottom 1 percent of all schools in the state. This year, 6 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in reading and 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at that level in math.
"We tried to work with the school to improve their academics. Over time, our estimation was that would not happen, and if a school program is not working, we have an obligation to close the school. It's rare, but it was necessary," said Ethan Hemming, executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute. The organization oversees 30 charter schools with about 13,000 students enrolled across the state.
A new standard
For the past 17 years, the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) and the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) have dominated Colorado education. The latter, which has been in place since 2011, was designed to support the transition to new Colorado Academic Standards for third- through 10th-graders in reading, writing and math.
Wendy Birhanzel, head of curriculum instruction and assessment for Harrison School District 2, sums up the feelings of many school leaders on the threshold of this new way of educating students:
"There is a lot of anxiety, and rightly so, because it's new and we haven't seen what it will do. But if we teach to the new standards, and teach our kids to think critically, we will be successful. It is preparing them for the 21st century."
Colorado initiated the CSAP in 1997 to measure how well students were learning state-created academic requirements. It started with two tests and expanded to 31 tests to include measuring student growth.
Testing developed out of a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which used a $1 billion grant carrot to help districts overcome achievement gaps and have a more competitive edge internationally.
In Colorado and other states, districts that have not performed to standards have been placed on probation and improvement plans.
When this national push still left U.S. education lagging behind many nations in some areas, the Common Core Standards initiative emerged. Governors from 46 states created a system to do away with the variety of state-to-state standards. Common Core underlined specific learning goals based on critical thinking to help students be prepared for college and careers.
This year's tests are linked to Common Core goals and have two components: a state-level assessment in science and social studies and tests in language arts (reading, writing, communications) and math. The latter was created by a national consortium of Colorado and 19 other states called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Together they are known by the acronym CMAS (Colorado Measures of Academic Success). That will be the name for the tests starting this school year.
"The CSAPs and TCAPs have served a purpose of public accountability, a system of checks and balances. But beyond that it was fairly limited," said Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, which has consistently been at the top in assessment scores in the region.
Cooper said that on a large scale, the old tests helped districts see trends, compare their work with others across Colorado and pinpoint gaps in curriculum that did not square with state requirements.
"It doesn't impact instruction at the student level," he said. "That is really the job for our formative assessments, our own local tests where we see how kids are doing individually at the classroom level.
"Looking back, I wouldn't say that the tests taught a lot about how to affect good instruction in the classroom."
Districts will continue to use the TCAP and CSAP results to build momentum going forward into the new CMAS rendition, said Jason Ter Horst, assistant superintendent of instruction, curriculum and student services in Colorado Springs School District 11.
"There's still viable data that will come from the results," he said. "We had areas of emphasis we focused on, and we can look through the data to see if we had a positive impact on the work we did, align ourselves with the new testing paradigm and draw some parallels between the data we have and the new Colorado Academic Standards."
The new tests will be more rigorous and more complex, which Ter Horst said is "changing the planning and delivery of instruction. It's less about the resource and more about the instruction."
Lewis-Palmer School District 38 Superintendent Karen Brofft believes the CSAP and TCAP gave educators invaluable tools.
"We learned that test data can be one source of information that allowed us to dig deeper and understand more about individual student needs."
School districts mine not only annual standardized tests for important student learning information but also have added local test tools and indicators.
"As we have gone down the CSAP road, we got better and better at it," Brofft said. "Now that we are data savvy, and our local data is more accessible and we can more quickly predict how a student is performing at a moment in time instead of waiting a year to see state test results."
Even at that, she echoes the beliefs of many educators.
"I believe in using the test data well," Brofft said. "But some of this is overkill and doesn't give us time to administer our own local tests to the degree we can make good decisions about our individual students and programs."
All children can learn
Small school districts have struggled with having the staff or money for professional development to keep abreast of the changing needs in curriculum. And they expect that may be the case for the new tests.
Ellicott School District 22, with about 1,000 students in eastern rural El Paso County, participated in a pilot program for the new CMAS testing.
"The pilot answered some of our problems, but we will have to get into it to see how it's working," Superintendent Pat Cullen said. "There's a concern with every educator across Colorado as to how CMAS will affect test results."
Narrowing the achievement gap among impoverished and at-risk students has been one of the major concerns that has driven standardized tests nationally for years. In Colorado, the achievement gap remains large for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and for black and Hispanic students.
According to 2014 data, those groups lag nearly 30 percentage points behind white students and students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in testing proficient or advanced.
In Harrison School District 2, more than 70 percent of the 11,000 students are considered low income. Students did so poorly on CSAP tests that the state placed the district on academic probation in 2007.
D-2 used a variety of programs and innovative education tools, including paying teachers for how well their students performed on tests. They dug themselves out of that testing hole and have hit state averages in many categories.
The effort proved, as D-2 Superintendent Andre Spencer said: "All kids can learn."
But, he added, the district won't rest until students have all 100s on state tests. He said he was "not overjoyed" with this year's scores because students didn't improve in all areas.
Wendy Birhanzel, an assistant superintendent at D-2, has seen much worse in past assessment tests. Looking back, she said, CSAP and TCAP have given educators a measure of what students can master in particular grades and subjects and allow teachers to compare their students' performance with others across the state, including those with similar diversity.
"The bad part of the old tests is what is good about the new tests," Birhanzel said. "In the past, test questions were low level and mostly recall of information. Our new CMAS tests will have higher level of questions that ask students to think critically. Instead of memorizing answers, they have to analyze situations and synthesize information to come up with answers."
Bottom line, she said: "It will teach them to transfer knowledge to real-world situations."