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Students opt out of testing in droves in some Colorado Springs schools

April 29, 2015 Updated: April 30, 2015 at 6:49 am
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photo - Test administrator, Emilee Shindel, helps set up a mobile lab at Lewis-Palmer Middle School in preparation for Monday's new online testing for the students Friday, April 11, 2014.  Photo by Mason Trinca, The Gazette
Test administrator, Emilee Shindel, helps set up a mobile lab at Lewis-Palmer Middle School in preparation for Monday's new online testing for the students Friday, April 11, 2014. Photo by Mason Trinca, The Gazette 

The testing frenzy came to a head this week for Colorado public schools, as students in some districts opted out in droves.

The window for the second half of new English language arts and math assessments for third through 11th graders opened on Monday. High school juniors across the state took the ACT college entrance exam on Tuesday. And many fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grade students were finishing new standardized tests in science and social studies on Wednesday.

Technology glitches, more refusals to test and general frustration reigned, as many wonder if it's all for naught.

"What we now have is an absolutely irrelevant data set because not every kid is testing, so the comparative sample is no longer what it should be," said Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.

"I really worry about the validity of this data," he said, "and to put all of this time and energy into this work to what results as a data set that's completely useless is really frustrating."

On Wednesday, only 29 of the 320 juniors at Cheyenne Mountain High School took the English and math tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), said Assistant Superintendent John Fogarty. Refusal rates for sophomores and freshman were less but still significant - 84 percent among 10th graders and 70 percent for ninth graders.

Students who did not test stayed home.

"If we'd known there would only be 29 juniors testing, we would have had everyone come to school and separated the few that did test," Fogarty said. "The major frustration is how much impact this has on our instructional time."

Also on Wednesday, Colorado Springs School District 11 announced that it had a problem with computer hardware and halted all testing.

While the phones in the 28,400-student district worked, email access and Internet connectivity were spotty, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby. The district's Digital High School canceled some classes.

"We've had some schools reporting they're good and others not," she said. "It's impacting the schools significantly. Our IT department is on top of it, and we're hopeful Thursday will be a regular day."

D-11 postponed testing on two other occasions since the revamped system started last month. A "denial of service attack" disrupted testing in March, and two weeks ago, Pearson, the third-party test administrator, experienced technological problems that prevented some students from being able to sign on to the computer-based testing.

Colorado lawmakers, meanwhile, have been debating how to change testing, which many have criticized for being too time consuming, too costly and logistically difficult. With the State Board of Education's Feb. 18 decision to not penalize school districts for parents who do not let their children take the new tests, district officials expected some refusals. But not to the extent that some are seeing.

Before this school year, virtually all students participated in standardized testing in Cheyenne Mountain D-12, Cooper said. The trend continued when the first half of the English and math tests from PARCC started last month. Only 34 of 900 students that were supposed to test at Cheyenne Mountain High School opted out, with 98 percent testing.

Then came Wednesday's big drop.

Even among those who tested, "Because of the length and complexity, many kids did not give their best effort because they saw no purpose in it," Cooper said.

To earn a score, students must take both the first and second parts of the PARCC test, the latter of which is now being administered.

Refusals also have steadily climbed at Monument Academy, a K-8 charter school in Monument, in Lewis-Palmer School District 38.

More than 60 percent of the school's 575 third through eighth graders this week have refused the PARCC testing, said Principal Elisabeth Richard.

"Some parents didn't even know the state had changed the testing, but as parents became more informed, they have been signing refusals," she said.

Reasons given, Richard said, include parents disagreeing with the test, which was developed by a multi-state consortium that includes Colorado and is linked to Common Core State Standards, and concerns about data privacy and federal government intrusion.

Students who didn't test are doing regular classwork, and the school will rely on nationally normed tests it gives at the beginning and end of the school year to determine academic performance and growth, Richard said.

So, "We are not concerned with the results of these tests this year," she said.

Some school districts, including Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 in Fountain, have seen little dissension. Only 50 of the district's 5,012 third through 11th grade students have refused to test, said Superintendent Cheryl Serrano.

She attributes the high turnout to the district being committed to following the rules.

"We haven't had a lot of the negative," Serrano said. "We're trying to do what we're supposed to be doing, whether we agree or disagree. We still want them to do their best, and we've seen very good effort from our students."

A few teachers but no parents showed up to an information session on PARCC testing on Monday at Fountain-Fort Carson High School, sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition.

"People have been open to it. We just aren't having some of the same dynamics other districts are," Serrano said.

However, Serrano said, she hopes lawmakers lessen the amount of time spent on the new tests.

"I'm a firm believer that we need to do assessments for accountability and to be able to compare ourselves to other districts," she said. "But we're hoping for some relief next year because it's impacting too much of our instructional time. Is it weighing on our teachers? There's no doubt about it."

Military students in particular benefit from common assessments based on common curriculum, she said. About 70 percent of D-8's 8,120 students come from military families, the largest in the state. It's also the most mobile district, Serrano said.

"Military families want all the schools to use the same curriculum and start and end at the same time. Those things aren't going to happen, but one of the things that would help our military kids transition from one school to the next is common assessments."

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