The first day it was four degrees. On the second day, the needle jumped to 15 degrees, and the sign-waving students celebrated. Those two cold days in November, 2014, marked Fairview High School Senior Jessica Piper’s first foray into political activism. Like nearly 80 percent of her classmates, she refused to take the new Colorado Measures of Academic Success standardized test.
This year’s vibrant testing-opt-out trend has motivated lawmakers to advance several testing reform bills including one that would protect schools and students from punishment for low test-participation rates. Now, the State Legislature is scrambling to pass these bills in the session’s final weeks.
“I took a bunch of sample CMAS tests, and they didn’t feel accurate to my education,” said Piper. “Then I realized the state wanted to use these tests not just to evaluate me, but my teachers and my school. If the tests are flawed, the data is flawed, and we can’t make good decisions about public education if we can’t get them to understand that the tests and the evaluation system are flawed and that maybe we need to get a better one.”
Piper argues that the state’s nearly 30 hours of standardized assessments take up too much instruction time. They cover content that privileges larger schools and tilt the scale in favor of wealthy kids who are more computer literate.
The opt-out trend doesn’t cleave to partisan, economic or regional lines. The second highest rates are from the rural Meeker District on the Western Slope, where half the students chose not to take the tests. Conservative, suburban Douglas County placed third, with just under half the students opting out.
Piper said that because her district actually requested a waiver not to give the CMAS tests at all, securing her opt-out was easy.
“I talked to other high-schoolers at the time who took the test. They were told prom would be canceled if too many of them opted-out,” said Piper. “In our case as students we were in a position to opt-out without consequences. In that sense, we were in a position of power.”
The legislature is now considering a clarification bill that would guarantee students’ right to opt-out without consequences to themselves, their teachers, their schools or their districts. SB 223 has already passed in the Senate and will receive its first hearing in the House Education Committee today.
The bill’s sponsors’ maintain that the measure is not intended to encourage students to opt-out, only to make sure their schools are held harmless.
“In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary,” agreed Piper. “But given the controversy around testing right now, re-asserting the right to opt out is imperative.”
While the bill has bipartisan support in both the Senate and House, it may not pass its crucial final test – the Governor’s signature.
In a joint press conference with former Colorado governors Bill Owens and Roy Romer, Gov. John Hickenlooper said he has “great concerns” with the opt-out phenomenon and with any legislative action that would facilitate it.
“The way a testing system works is if everyone uses it,” said Hickenlooper. “If large segments of our population in one district or another suddenly decide they’re not going to take the test, you really invalidate the value of that test and make it impossible for parents to know if they’re getting a fair share of the tax dollars they’re spending.”
That said, Hickenlooper declined to disclose whether or not he plans to veto the opt-out immunity bill, saying he’ll wait to see the final version.
In that same press conference, Hickenlooper also offered hints as to which of the bipartisan test-reform bills circulating in the legislature he might be most likely to sign.
One measure, SB 257, would allow districts to choose from a variety of standardized tests so long as they meet the federal minimums for K-12 evaluations. The bill would also remove standardized testing requirements for ninth graders.
Piper said she prefers that bill to a softer House version because it would create more competition between companies designing standardized tests.
Romer, who instituted some of Colorado’s first standardized tests back in the late 1990’s, vehemently opposed the proposed high-school test cuts. He said it was “nonsensical” to slash tests for ninth graders who are just beginning their high-school education and need to prepare for the rigors of college.
“I still look at ninth grade as being an important component,” agreed Hickenlooper. “We’re spending billions of dollars a year educating our kids, and suddenly, with this one year we don’t really care if they’ve improved… how they’re doing relative to one school district or another, one part of the state to another? It seems a little bit disingenuous.”
That may be good news for the House’s answer to the test-reform debate. Their HB 1323, which also has bipartisan support, would cut tests for the last two years of high school but retain English and Math testing in ninth grade.
With just eight days left in the legislative session, both the Senate and House test-reform bills still face a final vote in their chamber of origin and passage by the other chamber before final consideration by the Governor himself.
Top Photo Credit: Jessica Piper
Middle photo: Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, introduces her opt-out bill SB 223 amid protestors at the Capitol. Photo by Tessa Cheek.