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Colorado students could be exempted from taking state-issued standardized tests this year if a bill introduced in the state legislature passes — and policymakers are able to convince the federal government there are other ways to assess student learning this year.

HB 21-1125 seeks to cancel the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, tests, administered annually to third through eighth graders, for the 2020-2021 academic year. It would also, in the event the exams can’t be called off, prohibit districts from using the results as an accountability measure for teachers and principals.

Standardized testing has proved a divisive issue among Colorado school leaders, education advocates and lawmakers. Those who support exams believe they’re critical to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students’ academic proficiency.

But those behind the bill say schools face stiff logistical challenges in hosting CMAS tests, and that doing so would sacrifice precious instructional time while results would come too late to address students’ needs.

If the bill passes, Colorado would still need a waiver from federal education officials to be able to forgo the tests. Biden administration officials this week said they expect states to issue assessments to evaluate and support students where they’ve fallen behind during the pandemic.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, supports suspending standardized tests due to the toll on both staff and students.

“You essentially stop instruction for period of time in order to do all the testing and all protocols. We’ve lost a lot of instruction time and we place a higher value on that,” Munn said. “Everyone is pretty clear that standardized testing increases stress in a school environment. What our kids are clearly telling us is they already feel a significant amount of stress… When you compare that against the data we would expect to get, it don’t seem that it’s worth the tradeoffs.”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, co-sponsor of the bill, said there are tests other than CMAS that can provide the necessary context to evaluate students’ academic needs, such as the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP, assessment.

Colorado schools already regularly give tests like these, so Zenzinger and her co-sponsors plan to amend the bill and offer those results to the federal government as a way to identify which academic areas should be addressed and how as early as this summer.

“One consistent theme I’ve heard from the majority of people is the idea we should be trying to find data that we can then act upon,” Zenzinger said. “We as bill sponsors are committed to that concept. We’re not trying to hide or not learn the truth. It’s just that CMAS is not the best or most practical way to get the information that (officials) want.”

One of the biggest obstacles to hosting CMAS this year is purely logistical.

Colorado’s vendor, Pearson, will not permit students to take the test remotely, Zenzinger said, so schools would have to collect computers they issued to students at the beginning of the year, scrub them and update them to meet the company’s security standards. Then students would have to physically come into buildings for the test, after which the devices would need to be scrubbed again.

Lorrie Shepard, a professor in the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education, said the process is not only time consuming, but also inequitable because it inhibits kids who don’t have another device at home from learning while the test is being administered.

“It takes an estimated two to three weeks minimum to administer the test. Because of social distancing it will take much longer,” she said.

Those are weeks many teachers and children can’t afford to lose, after a fall semester marred by frequent changes in class format and disruptions to learning, Zenzinger said.

Shepard also noted CMAS is designed to test students on a full year’s worth of material, but educators say time constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced them to whittle down lessons and focus only on the most critical concepts and skills. That’s likely to amplify the stress students feel about taking the exams.

“It’s not fair to say tests are zero-cost in terms of instructional time and emotional wear and tear on students and teachers,” Shepard said.

Are results reliable?

Despite those challenges, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said schools need to be prepared to conduct CMAS testing based on the federal guidance released this week. Though districts have interim assessments such as MAPS that they use to track students’ progress throughout the year, the state does not collect those results.

CMAS “is the state’s main tool, or really one of the only tools, for understanding where our students are in terms of their learning and how they’re doing compared to a standard,” Anthes said. “We are all interested in understanding what has transpired because of COVID. How much learning loss has there been? In which subject areas, at what grade levels? We don’t know that unless we provide some measurement tool and this is our measurement tool.”

Zenzinger and fellow bill co-sponsor Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, hope data from exams such as MAPS can be used in lieu of CMAS to satisfy the federal requirements. They believe results from those assessments more accurately reflect students’ academic proficiencies because of both the format and participation rate.


— Director Tay Anderson (@DirectorTay) February 23, 2021

According to a nationwide survey by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press, districts that predominantly serve white students were three times as likely to offer in-person learning than were districts where students of color make up the majority of the student body. In Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, 41% of Black students and 38% of Hispanic students enrolled in remote learning compared to 22% of white students, Chalkbeat reported.

That disparity will skew results for an in-person test, Zenzinger said. Parents can also opt their kids out of CMAS testing, and this week, DPS board member Tay Anderson launched an initiative to encourage parents to do just that.

Colorado kids did not take CMAS last April after the coronavirus shuttered schools, so the data would not be comparable year-over-year, test opponents said. McLachlan worries that even if standardized testing continues as planned this year, the results won’t be available soon enough to address the gaps in learning.

“CMAS results don’t come out until August or September, but that really doesn’t do the students any good. It’s best to have early data to address (learning loss) over the summer with summer school or tutoring. Some schools are talking about extending the year,” she said. “Those are things we should be thinking about — how do we best take care of students?”

This content was originally published here.