The start of Colorado’s new state-mandated tests in March triggered fresh debate on the subject of testing. For a behind-the-scenes look at how the testing went, seven local principals shared candid feedback about their first week of CMAS (Colorado Measures of Academic Success).
These language arts and math tests, also referred to as PARCC, are new this year. They have a new type of questions, they are based on new standards, and they are the first standardized tests to be taken on computers.
The responses in a nutshell
After heavy news and social media coverage about opting out, very few families did. In our sample of seven schools (Ashley, Denver Discovery, DSST: Stapleton and Conservatory Green, McAuliffe, Swigert and Bill Roberts), 10 students opted out. In DPS, the preliminary count of opt-outs district wide was .53 percent (subject to change once all tests are over).
Did students lose valuable class time to test prep?
The principals unanimously say only minimal time was spent on test prep—most spent one to two class periods on the logistics of logging in and getting familiar with some of the sample questions.
Were there glitches with computerized testing? Some schools reported no trouble at all. Some reported initial glitches logging in and slow computers that left students sitting and waiting awhile to get logged in. None reported an inability to complete the testing due to computer problems. All the schools have individual computers or one computer for two students, so lack of computers was not an issue.
Did the testing cause anxiety for students?
Most of the principals said they observed very little stress and feel students are accustomed to standardized testing and take it in stride. That said, for some students, the unknowns of this test, new technology and new kinds of questions, did create stress.
Have the new standards changed teaching in positive or negative ways?
The answer to this question was perhaps the most surprising of all the responses, given the national conversation on Common Core State Standards and tests associated with them. Most of these principals/administrators felt the new standards are good for their teachers and students and have raised the level of rigor in the classroom.
Are the tests too long?
Superintendent Boasberg recently testified to a congressional committee that although Colorado’s mandated assessments (which are tied to federal education funds) are of a high quality and very useful, they are too long. Currently, between state and district assessments, students spend between two hours (kindergarten) and 25 hours (grades 7 and 8) per year on tests—which is .2 percent to 2.5 percent of their time. Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief of innovation and reform, says the district is also committed to reducing the length of the DPS assessments and has a goal of reducing testing time to .5 percent to 1 percent of total classroom time.
The results take too long—they won’t come back until next fall. Whitehead-Bust explained that in the very first year of a new test, “cut scores” (where the lines are drawn on proficiency) need to be set, and that will require an extended time period this year. In future years, with computerized testing, the results should come back much more quickly.
Chalkbeat (an online newspaper about education issues) recently ran a letter from four Colorado Teachers of the Year that said, “Teachers know how to prepare their students for testing at any level, but understand that statewide standardized-test preparation takes away valuable classroom time.”
Our local principals seem to have made a commitment not to let that happen.
McAuliffe Principal Kurt Dennis: “We’ve only devoted one English language arts class and one math class period to taking a practice assessment. We spent 30 minutes during homeroom doing an infrastructure test to make sure that all the computers and the wireless were going to work fine when we start testing.” None of the principals spent any more time than that.
Ashley Principal Zachary Rahn: “I did not observe anxiety amongst students in regards to testing. Our team went to great lengths to message PARCC/CMAS as an opportunity to show what you know and cultivate a culture that supported this.” The teachers created a video to convey this message to kids and families in a fun and silly way.
Christine Nelson, chief of staff, DSST Public schools: “Our natural student culture around assessment is strong, so there was very little anxiety about the testing.”
Swigert Principal Liz TenCate: “We did have some kids who were worried about their performance on the tests. Our message was that this is an assessment to help inform our teaching and help us understand what our students already know and where our areas for growth are as a school and individually. The biggest challenge is to have third-graders typing all responses. It is tough to have 8-year-olds ready to keyboard fluently.”
The new standards
Denver Discovery Principal Kristen Atwood says they have integrated the new Common Core standards into their curriculum so kids are “learning concepts in an authentic way. We don’t call it test prep, we call it excellent teaching.
“We have a guide, a set of expectations, that are rigorous, that have set the bar higher, and our kids and our staff are rising to a higher level of expectation and performing at a higher level. It’s not going to be easy and I don’t want to pretend and sugarcoat that life and high school and college and the working world are going to be easy for them. You’re going to have moments of struggle. So there are some standards that are super tough. We teach the kids that it’s okay because life isn’t easy and you have to be able to persevere and fight through those difficult learning opportunities.”
Kurt Dennis: “Overall, the new assessments are a great improvement from previous tests. In terms of our teaching staff, the shift to the Common Core and the released items from the PARCC have caused an instructional shift amongst our teachers that has shown great improvement in the quality of the curriculum and the quality of the instructional approaches.
“So yes, it’s more rigorous and it’s more challenging but I think it is driving better instruction, provided the necessary things are in place that need to be in place to deliver great instruction: more time, a strong school culture, and high-quality teachers in every classroom. If those things are in place, I think PARCC and Common Core are helping to create better learning opportunities for all kids.”
Zachary Rahn: “I would say the shift to these standards has impacted how we are teaching and what we are teaching in a very positive direction.”
Christine Nelson: “Common Core standards have definitely pushed us to raise the level of rigor in core content areas.”
Most of these schools have adjusted their school day and/or school year to both raise the bar on core academics and nurture the whole child with daily offerings in physical education, the arts and music.
Kristen Atwood: “We don’t cancel PE, orchestra or art. We still allow them to have lots of playtime throughout their day. But when we’re in that core class, we’re hitting it hard.”
Length of tests
Bill Roberts Principal Trich Lea: “They are too long. This is only part one—we have science and social studies coming up after spring break and then it is Skills for Literacy and Math. Then we also have district testing.”
Liz TenCate: “We agree with the district that finding the right assessments and limiting the time we take on assessments is important. The right tools can guide us incredibly well.”
Kurt: “I think that we could obtain the information that we need with shorter tests. The tests are too long and sometimes it becomes more a test of stamina than what kids actually know and can do.”