Tightrope Walker

Photo courtesy of Natalie Curtiss via Flickr

There are number of testing bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature this year.  Some of these take significant steps to roll back the testing system in the state while others exist merely to create the appearance of doing so.

At the same time, another bill (SB 223) clarifies that parents have the right to refuse to have their students take the test, commonly referred to as “opting out.”

Anti-testing advocates and groups argue that testing in Colorado has gone far beyond reasonable levels and that parents need legislation to both roll back the tests and to protect families who refuse to take the exams.  This side is made up of a strange mix of parent advocates, teachers’ unions, and individuals on the far right who are opposed to government over-reach.

The other side of the chessboard lines up testing proponents and a slew of well-funded “ed reform” groups.  Supporters of the tests argue that evaluating teachers based on tests scores, and ranking schools using these results are “innovations.” They claim that without these measures, the accountability and choice reforms the state has worked to put in place over the past few years will come abruptly undone.

It’s amazing how quickly the rhetoric changes.  Just a few years ago, many of those on the anti-testing side of this debate were labelled “defenders of the status quo” by  education reformers.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot with the ed reform camp scrambling to protect the laws and tests they put in place since 2010.

Without making any judgments, the arguments advanced by both sides are essentially correct.  Colorado testing has gone off the deep end in terms of the number of tests students are required to take and there does need to be some kind of mechanism for legally handling the exponential growth in the “opt out” movement we are seeing in some schools this year.  On the other side, removing the assessments would mean a roll back and sort of repudiation of the teacher and school ranking systems many of our current ed reform laws were designed to create. Additionally, a fundamental theory of the school choice movement is creating a school “marketplace” where parents can make educational decisions informed by data – test data specifically – this reform loses some steam without test data to drive it.

In my professional opinion, the right policy (at least at this point) is to move back the testing levels as close to “federal minimum” requirements under No Child Left Behind.  This is really as far as the state can go without putting federal education dollars in jeopardy, or at least minimally forcing the state into a gigantic game of chicken with Secretary Duncan.  Changing those federal minimums is something we, as a country, need to take a critical look at as well – but that’s a whole other subject!

The “opt out” movement is merely a symptom of a larger root cause: over-testing.  Putting in place some kind of legalized opt-out mechanism just puts a Band-Aid on the larger problem and will not allow the state to move past this issue.  Unless the legislature reduces the number of tests in a meaningful way, the “opt out” movement is going to persist and ultimately undermine the usefulness of all state testing data.

If we put aside the table-pounding voices from the anti-testing side, as well as the “big” money-fueled-coordinated-slick public relations campaigns from testing proponents, the challenge remaining for the legislature is finding a tolerable equilibrium in testing implementation. Given the “all or nothing” rhetoric individuals and groups involved seem to be taking, this is no easy task.

Fundamentally, the legislature has got to reduce the number of tests to a point where “opt out” numbers fall to their historically low numbers.  But they can’t go too far in that direction, or they risk the education reform groups continuing to push for more testing and measurement.

At the end of the legislative session, I expect the legislature to find that equilibrium position that most people in the state will accept . . . but that neither the anti-testing nor education reform groups will find completely satisfying.  While that is likely to be the ultimate outcome, don’t hold your breath or turn away not expecting this to be a spectacle.  Whatever happens, this is going to be fun to watch.

*A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on April 15, 2015.