The quagmire of standardized testing became even murkier Thursday, with a surprise move by the Colorado State Board of Education leaving more questions than answers for public school districts across the state.
On the heels of November's massive student protests against standardized testing in Colorado, the state board voted 4-3 to allow districts to seek waivers to opt out of the first part of new computer-based tests in English language arts, literacy and mathematics. Those assessments are supposed to start in March.
But it's unclear whether the state board has the authority to grant such waivers.
Education Commissioner Robert Hammond told the board he could not issue waivers unless the Colorado Attorney General's Office tells him it's OK to do so.
Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, said she could not comment on the board's vote.
"When we advise a client, we're providing legal advice, and we tend to let the client speak for themselves," she said.
A representative from Attorney General John Suthers' office told the state board at the meeting, which was held at the Colorado Department of Education headquarters in Denver, that its vote likely would not have any legal standing.
In a statement released Thursday evening, the Colorado Department of Education said it is "consulting with the Attorney General's Office to determine the legality of the directive."
And, "If the motion is found to be legal, the department will take action based on the board's motion."
The statement went on to say that the CDE will continue to "implement existing law as adopted by the Governor and the General Assembly, as well as federal law and all State Board rules and policies. If and when those things change, the department will make changes to the implementation."
The item was not on Thursday's agenda. Former state Sen. Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs who was sworn in Wednesday to fill a vacancy, unexpectedly brought up the issue and subsequently made a motion. Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, seconded the motion.
The item gained majority approval from the board, with Val Flores, a new Democrat member from Denver, and Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur also supporting it.
Newly sworn-in state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, who has become a member of the Education Committee, said he doesn't approve of the way the measure was handled.
"There's a right way and a wrong way of accomplishing things. While I support re-examining testing in Colorado, I would have preferred that the board followed regular procedure to ensure full transparency," he said.
Merrifield said he thinks students, teachers and parents have done "an excellent job" bringing the issue of over-testing to the table.
"They deserve to be heard," he said. "The bottom line is that students need to be in the classroom learning, and excessive testing takes away from that."
Opposition from parents and students started mounting last fall. More than 5,000 Colorado 12th-graders refused to take new state-mandated science and social studies tests in November, and many staged walkouts at schools in Boulder, Castle Rock, Cherry Creek and elsewhere.
School districts that have spoken out against what they view as an onslaught of testing that takes up too much classroom time and doesn't give a valid picture of academic performance are waiting for the outcome of the board's decision.
"Until all sides at the state level agree and the process is more defined, we will keep a close eye on this developing situation," said Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs School District 11.
Officials from D-11, Colorado Springs' largest school district, started pushing back at the beginning of this school year, trying to obtain permission from state authorities to opt out of the state standardized testing schedule. They got a "no" from the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education. Other school districts in the state followed suit but also were unsuccessful.
Colorado became a member in 2010 of a multistate consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. Through the federal Race to the Top grant program, the consortium has developed new standardized assessments aligned to new and more rigorous academic standards. Hammond serves on the PARCC governing board.
This school year is the first for the new PARCC tests, which are to be given in March and at the end of the school year. Durham argued Thursday that districts should be able to administer only the year-end tests, if they choose. CDE staff told the board the two parts can't be separated.
Last spring, Colorado lawmakers proposed delaying PARCC testing for this school year, but that effort failed. Instead, they created a 15-member task force to study and collect feedback on academic standards and assessments. Members are to issue recommendations by Jan. 31.