New online Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests have been launched in spring and fall 2014, and more Coloradoans, both educators and parents, say there are too many tests.
New online Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests have been launched in spring and fall 2014, and more Coloradoans, both educators and parents, say there are too many tests. Credit: Aubree Dallas / The Aspen Times

Aspen may have hit a breaking point with standardized testing, too.

Though accredited with distinction for many years by the Colorado Department of Education, in part because of its exemplary performance on the state’s student assessments, some officials in the Aspen School District are finally saying enough is enough.

At a recent board of education meeting, the cumulative pressure brought on by another round of standardized testing boiled over. No decisions were made, but it was an expression of frustration.

Board President Sheila Wills said she’d heard that a lot of seniors were upset at having to take an upcoming pair of science and social studies exams as part of the new Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) system. As other board members nodded, Wills expressed her surprise that the tests were actually being scheduled during the midst of seniors’ college-application process.

“They’re all going to be looking forward to getting out of school, and I can’t imagine they’ll be interested in taking a standardized test that has no meaning for them going forward,” she said.

By the time the results of the CMAS tests are known, Wills added, most seniors around the state will already have decided what colleges and universities they’ll attend. And if students aren’t taking the tests seriously, she added, then the test results won’t reveal much about their knowledge or skills.

This is an increasingly common complaint across the state. The CMAS tests, which Aspen seniors are scheduled to take on two consecutive Wednesdays, Nov. 5 and 12, are attracting attention, at least partly because they’re part of a broader trend. The feeling is shared by many educators for whom the CMAS tests represent another addition to a standardized testing system that begins in third grade and now continues through senior year of high school.

“I think teachers are beginning to feel overwhelmed with all the standardized assessments now in place,” Aspen Superintendent John Maloy said. “It does take a fair amount of time to administer these tests, and teachers feel the instructional time is more valuable.”

A recent poll conducted by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, shows widespread concern among the general public about the amount of testing. Nearly two of three respondents said they want fewer standardized tests, and that they believe parents should be able to opt out. The Colorado Education Association supports a partial rollback of the state’s current testing system.

Aspen High School Principal Kimberly Martin acknowledged the rising frustration in a recent letter to parents while also defending the importance of testing to Aspen High School. “A school’s rank (AHS is Excellent with Distinction), for instance, is based in part on student performance on standardized assessments,” Martin wrote. “The new teacher evaluation system also includes student performance components that may be derived from these same assessments.”

Opting out is not a realistic option for school districts, since their accreditation rests on 95 percent participation in the state assessments. Furthermore, if significant numbers of children don’t show up on test day, then the accuracy of the results falls into question, especially if the no-shows tend to fall into distinct academic, demographic or ethnic subgroups.

There is a local component to the testing uptick, because most districts choose their own standardized tests in addition to the state’s required tests, as another indicator of student progress.

The broader reason for the growing number of exams in Colorado and across the country is a movement toward more accountability in public schools. The tests, now administered in elementary, middle and high schools to assess student progress at various levels, are designed essentially to verify that the billions of dollars spent on public education are yielding the right outcomes.

Few educators dispute the essence of the accountability measures, but over time, the number and frequency of the tests has grown, and many feel that all the testing has reached a point of diminishing returns. Furthermore, Colorado has chosen to exceed the federal No Child Left Behind standards, so today’s standards feel increasingly rigorous in comparison to past years.

“This is all about opening doors for kids and making sure that when they walk across that (graduation) stage, they’ll have all the right options in their lives,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment for the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).

The CDE is responsible for carrying out the state’s assessment goals as directed by the Legislature. Zurkowski admits that the current mix of standards and assessments is a work in progress and will likely be adjusted in some ways going forward. “We are definitely in a time of transition and transition is hard,” she said.

With regard to the upcoming science and social studies test for seniors, she explained that some districts teach the elements of science and social studies in different sequences or at different times, so the decision was made to test all students in their senior year, when they’ve theoretically learned it all.

“The standards cover the entire high school span,” Zurkowski said. “So in order to respect local authority, we wanted to push the assessments as late in the students’ career as possible.”

For those who wish to voice their thoughts on testing — negative, positive or somewhere in between — a task force, appointed by the Legislature and made up of 15 educators, parents and stakeholders, is now touring the state, seeking feedback on this topic. The so-called Standards and Assessment Task Force spent a recent evening in Edwards and will hold another public meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction on Thursday, Nov. 6. The aim of the roundtable discussions is to answer questions about standardized testing and solicit opinions.

“Folks across the state are truly wrestling with what is the right balance between assessment and instruction,” said Dan Snowberger, task force chair and superintendent of the Durango School District. “In the end, the real question is ‘What should an effective Statewide Assessment System look like?’”

The task force will compile its conclusions in a report to the Legislature by Jan. 31.

With all the continuing pressure for accountability in education, testing will not go away anytime soon. But Colorado’s system may well be refined and tweaked to find the right balance between teaching time and testing time.

“Tests are very important for us to assess kids’ progress and proficiency,” Maloy said, “but we’re very concerned we’ve moved so far beyond the requirements of the federal government that we’re beginning to over-test.”

Bob Ward runs the Education Desk for Aspen Journalism and is collaborating with The Aspen Times to cover schools and education news in the Roaring Fork Valley. This story was published in the Times on Nov. 3, 2014.