A chart from the Colorado Dept. of Education showing tentative testing dates for Colorado students in 2015.
A chart from the Colorado Dept. of Education showing tentative testing dates for Colorado students in 2015. Credit: Source: / Colorado Dept. of Education

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Thousands of high school seniors on Colorado’s Front Range boycotted new, state-mandated standardized tests last week, but it appears most Roaring Fork Valley students are cooperating with the exams — except for roughly 18 seniors from Glenwood Springs High School.

Media reports have varied, but it’s clear that several thousand students in Boulder, Denver and Douglas counties openly rebelled against the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, science and social studies exams. Most Roaring Fork Valley seniors cooperated with their teachers and administrators, however. As Roaring Fork School District board member Daniel Biggs said last week of his son, a senior in Glenwood, “He was willing to do it, but I don’t think he was taking it seriously, either.”

Roaring Fork Superintendent Diana Sirko said Tuesday there were “very few” no-shows in Basalt and Carbondale, but the opt-outs in Glenwood represented around 10 percent of the roughly 200-student senior class.

“This was not surprising, but it is concerning for what our experience might be in spring,” when more tests are administered to students in third through 11th grade, she said.

Tom Heald, assessment director for the Aspen School District, said, “The testing at AHS has been business as usual.”

The widespread complaints about the CMAS tests seemed to arise from two main factors. First, most seniors are in the midst of applying to colleges and these tests late in their high-school careers won’t have any bearing on their futures. Second, the tests are just one piece of an overall uptick in the number of tests taken by public school students beginning in grade three and continuing through high school.

This frustration was on display at a Nov. 6 meeting at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where the state’s Standards and Assessment Task Force heard from an estimated 200 to 300 parents, educators and interested residents about the state’s testing program.

Dan Snowberger, chair of the task force and superintendent of the Durango School District, said afterward, “I’m certainly hearing a high level of anxiety over the length of testing time and, most recently, the science and social studies assessments for seniors.”

Mandated testing

Multiple pieces of state legislation over the past 5 to 10 years have required a battery of standardized tests at various grade levels, the tests are harder than before and the effects of all these laws essentially converged this year. Both students and teachers — who are graded on their students’ test results under the Educator Effectiveness program — are feeling the stress.

Many blame the Colorado Department of Education, but local districts add to the testing burden, as well.

For example, the Aspen School District uses electronic Scantron exams to test students in third through ninth grade mid-year in several core disciplines. The Roaring Fork School District uses different tests from the Northwest Evaluation Association for the same grades.

In both cases, the districts receive immediate, valuable results from these tests and are able to adjust instruction if the tests reveal gaps in students’ knowledge or a need for intervention. Results from the state’s standardized exams take several months to compile and return, although that should change with the advent of online exams this year and next year.

Sirko said only about 3 percent of Roaring Fork students’ overall time is spent on standardized tests, but occasionally it does feel excessive.

“For most of the year, it isn’t much of an issue,” she said. “That being said, there is definitely a drain on instructional time during some months of the year when the assessments are being given.”

Technologically challenged

In spring 2015, for example, students in third through 11th grade across the state will have a series of standardized assessments that fall into a common window of time. These Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests will certainly bring some stress — not only for the student test takers, but also for districts without the technological resources to administer hundreds of simultaneous online tests.

The Aspen School District was able to afford computers and wireless Internet upgrades to handle this burden. “We feel like we will be fine with the technology needs of the new assessments,” Sirko said.

Other cash-strapped districts, however, are behind the technological curve. For lack of sufficient Internet or computer capacity, many Colorado school districts had to send elementary school students home for one or more days in order to administer the recent senior-level CMAS exams.

“A lot of districts are having to close schools and have the seniors come in to take the tests,” said Paula Stephenson, head of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “We have hit capacity.”

Snowberger said he agrees the technological issue is very real. “We’re clearly stressing our systems,” he said.

Can’t please everyone

The task force will make recommendations to the state legislature in January for possible changes to Colorado’s testing regime. Snowberger said the task force may recommend some flexibility or relief for districts, but nobody should expect a 180-degree turnaround.

“We’ve had districts that have pleaded with the task force not to change course, to allow the plan to be implemented, and we have had other districts advocate quite the contrary,” he said. “Whatever the task force comes up with, I don’t know if it’s going to be unanimously celebrated.”

One statewide outgrowth of the testing debate is a re-evaluation of districts’ local testing requirements. As Heald said, “Can we get the same information in less time with less stress on everybody? We probably can.”

At the same time, he said, the reams of testing data have prompted deep and thoughtful conversations among teachers about how they do their jobs.

“Whenever you get professionals together who care deeply about their content areas, and you can get them talking and thinking deeply about performance, it’s good for kids,” Heald said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of schools and education. The Times published this story on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014.