Education

Colorado districts prepare for CMAS testing amid uncertainty about federal waiver

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Reluctant Colorado school districts are preparing to administer standardized tests amid uncertainty about whether the state can get any relief from federal testing requirements.

Last Monday, federal education officials directed states to proceed with the administration of standardized tests, known here as the Colorado Measures of Academic Success or CMAS, because the tests will help officials get a better understanding of how the pandemic has affected student learning. The letter offered flexibility, but not “blanket waivers.”

Opponents of testing in Colorado, including lawmakers who have introduced a bill to suspend testing amid pandemic disruptions, thought there still might be a way to avoid administering CMAS. They proposed using district-level assessments, such as the NWEA MAP tests, to provide the information about learning loss sought by state and federal officials.

But a state attorney advising the Colorado Board of Education wrote in a memo that the federal guidance “plainly suggests that it will not entertain such a waiver request.” Without a waiver, Colorado would risk federal funding if it decided on its own not to give statewide assessments.

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Asked whether Colorado should pursue a waiver based on using district-level assessments, Gov. Jared Polis, who would have to sign off on any legislation, poured cold water on the idea.

“The federal government had ruled that out in their announcement around waivers,” he said. “I think that if Colorado is going to craft some sort of waiver requirement, it would need to be narrowly tailored to meet the federal criteria for approval.”

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Where does that leave legislation to suspend testing? A committee hearing originally scheduled for Wednesday is now pushed back to Friday, with negotiations ongoing.

“We’re still working on amendments, and things are changing by the minute,” state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “The hearing this week will allow us to hear from Coloradans on their views on administering the CMAS test this year.

“I’m optimistic that we will come to a workable agreement on a waiver proposal that will provide relief to our districts, educators and students as well as meet the federal guidance delivered on waiver applications.”

School districts, meanwhile, are preparing to administer the tests starting this month. For many, that means recalling laptops that were distributed to students for remote learning and which are used in the classroom on a regular basis by all students.

The laptops need to be digitally cleaned and secured before they can be used for testing, and the testing window lasts weeks. If a class needs to quarantine during that time, “that child will sit at home without a device, and that’s shameful,” said Scott Siegfried, superintendent of the Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver.

There’s also the question of how to test remote students, many of whose parents have deep concerns about the safety of going into school buildings. In Cherry Creek, that’s about 20% of students. In Denver Public Schools, it’s 40%.

To avoid pulling back so many laptops, Denver will limit the number of students who get tested at a time and will share devices among more students, requiring additional sanitation, district spokeswoman Winna MacLaren said in an email. Families, meanwhile, should expect more asynchronous learning days while teachers are proctoring tests.

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Already, more than 6,800 Denver students have said they’ll opt out of one or more CMAS tests, a substantial increase from previous years. Other districts are also reporting a higher rate of opt-outs — and some education leaders, such as Denver board member Tay Anderson, are actively calling on parents to allow their children to skip the tests.

In the Westminster district, which follows a competency-based model, students learn in cohorts based on their academic level, not their age. But to take CMAS, they’ll have to be reorganized into age-based groups to better correspond with typical grade levels. That could mean mixing cohorts or taking even more time to administer the tests to smaller groups of students, potentially eating into the window to give the district’s own end-of-year tests.

“I think people outside of the schools are not understanding just the logistics behind some of that,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools.

Westminster, Denver, Aurora, and Cherry Creek are among many Colorado school districts whose boards have passed resolutions in opposition to giving CMAS tests.

Siegfried also has been a vocal opponent of administering standardized tests this year. Teachers already have the data they need on student progress, he said, from formative assessments that teachers administer throughout the year. These district-level tests provide real-time data that teachers use to see that students are confused about, for example, how to add fractions with different denominators and re-teach that concept.

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“I do not need CMAS to come in a disrupted year and tell me nothing,” Siegfried said. “The most meaningful data we have is the data teachers have been collecting all year.”

Advocates of administering CMAS this year, including many education advocacy groups, said the tests provide information that district-level assessments cannot. CMAS is a summative assessment, designed to measure how well students mastered all the concepts they were supposed to learn in a given school year. They allow for comparisons across schools and districts and among subgroups, such as students with disabilities or students learning English.

Experts have cautioned that standardized tests will be especially hard to interpret this year.

Nonetheless, they can provide vital information, even if it doesn’t arrive in time for this school year or even this budget cycle, said Stephanie Perez-Carillo, policy and partnerships manager for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

CMAS can provide information for legislators and state education officials to steer future money to districts where learning loss has been greater, and it can help parents too, she said.

“The more you know about what your kid does and doesn’t understand, the more you can advocate for what your child needs,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporters Yesenia Robles and Jason Gonzales contributed reporting.

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