Like most states, Colorados K-12 education system is in a perpetual state of evaluation and adjustment. That reality results from a range of pressures from all directions: federal mandates attached to crucial dollars, local priorities that conflict with state standards and, perhaps most importantly, ratcheting state funding availability. In that climate of multipronged scrutiny, school effectiveness and all that the term embodies becomes an essential metric.
As such, the state and local districts subject students to a battery of tests that aim to answer a series of important questions about how schools are doing. To some, including Colorado Rep. Judith Solano, D-Brighton, those tests are excessively burdensome on students. Solano has long been a critic of standardized testing and in her tenure in the Legislature has introduced several failed measures to scale it back. Her efforts are gaining some traction now, though, as she is making a fiscal argument for reducing the states testing requirements.
She has garnered bipartisan support for an expected measure that would trim the Colorado Student Assessment Program to its bare, federally required bones, reducing the $20 million the state spends each year on testing. By just how much is unclear, but in a budgetary discussion where K-12 education is facing $250 million in cuts, the fiscal argument has pricked some legislators ears. Fair enough, but the testing issue is far more complex.
The variables in gauging efficacy in education are almost infinite, but that does not mean that endeavoring to measure student progress, school productivity, efficient use of funds and teacher effectiveness is not important. Thoughtful data gathering can yield important information about what is working and what is not and can inform the perpetual reforms that are endemic to public education. The key word is thoughtful, and in Colorado and elsewhere, there is significant effort being put into making standardized testing relevant and instructional. It is not perfect, but it is improving.
The CSAP is in transition to a more comprehensive set of standards and assessments adopted in 2008, known collectively as the Colorado Achievement Plan For Kids, which will not be fully implemented until at least 2014. In the meantime, the Legislature passed a measure that helps the state integrate and coordinate the various accountability systems so as to clarify performance measures and how best to support efforts to improve educational effectiveness. Similarly, Sen. Michael Bennet has proposed the Commission on Effective Regulation and Assessment Systems for Public Schools Act a measure whose name says it all. Those are important steps that recognize and act on the evolving nature of school testing.
It is a complex issue that defies a simplistic answer, but eliminating testing is neither realistic nor desirable. A better answer to the vexing question is to find ways of utilizing testing data to assess the core issues associated with education: achievement, effectiveness, equality, efficiency and advancement. There are many efforts afoot to quantify and balance each of these goals, and having useful information is fundamental to that work whose outcome can be very valuable in parsing schools success. A recent Center for American Progress report on educational productivity analyzed school districts effectiveness from a return-on-investment perspective, measuring dollars spent against student achievement. The results, which suggest that more money does not necessarily equal higher success, provide a number of foundation points from which states and school districts can improve curricula, administrative structure, transportation access and many other factors that affect outcomes.
Finding those answers, though, requires asking questions: of students, of teachers, of principals, of administrators and of lawmakers. While standardized testing can be an anxiety-provoking distraction, as part of that mix of essential data-gathering, it also can reveal much about where we are and where we can go. Colorado should structure its metrics accordingly.