How do you measure the academic strides a student has made since last spring or clarify how much they’ve fallen behind?
It’s a complicated question in a summer bookended by uncertainty, with the coronavirus having forced Colorado students into remote learning this spring and many districts still pinning down their instruction plans for the fall.
It’s made even more complicated by a precarious budget year as lawmakers made significant cuts to education while trying to fill a $3 billion budget shortfall.
The mounting pressure to understand where students are academically and the scarcity of education dollars to use toward that effort have created a kind of tug-of-war between education advocates and some parents and teachers. A group of Colorado education organizations is urging Commissioner Katy Anthes and the Colorado Department of Education to invest federal funds into a diagnostic assessment that would help teachers better understand students’ learning gains or losses. The proposal has sparked backlash among another group that includes parents, teachers and their union, who insist that such a test would waste precious dollars at a time students need support for their social and emotional wellbeing.
Less than a week after the coalition of education organizations sent a letter to Anthes, an online petition on change.org launched to rail against that kind of assessment. The petition drew more than 1,300 signatures by Wednesday.
Denver parent Paul Vranas, who helped conceive the petition, said he would prefer the federal CARES Act money be used for resources that will support educators and meet the social-emotional needs of students who have endured trauma from the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 virus has amplified the challenge of having limited resources in our (state) to deliver education,” Vranas wrote in a letter to Anthes and the Colorado State Board of Education. “Creatively funding the delivery of educational and emotional supports is what our children need, not another standardized test.”
CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith confirmed that Anthes and the department received notice of the petition. She said that the issue of a diagnostic assessment was not raised when CDE conducted a survey of districts’ needs and a survey of ideas on ways to spend funds Colorado received from the Every Student Succeeds Act within the federal CARES Act.
Colorado was awarded more than $120 million from the U.S. Department of Education. Those dollars fall under the ESSER Fund. Of that total, CDE can reserve no more than 10%, equal to more than $12 million, to apply to emergency needs to address issues stemming from the coronavirus. A portion of those dollars could go toward a diagnostic assessment.
Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, one of the organizations pressing CDE for a diagnostic assessment, estimates that an assessment already created by a private vendor for Colorado’s more than 900,000 public school students would cost at least a few million dollars.
Smith said CDE will speak with stakeholders and will consult the state board to see if members want to discuss the potential of a diagnostic assessment at an upcoming board meeting.
CDE will also ask its assessment department to think through different approaches and the time and cost it would take to implement different approaches with a diagnostic assessment, Smith said.
Testing versus trust
Administering a diagnostic assessment in the fall is not a novel concept. In fact, it happens each school year, said Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert.
Teachers assess where their students are at the start of each year, some of them with diagnostic assessments provided by their district, Baca-Oehlert said.
“There’s no need to spend our precious, very limited resources to go to private corporations for testing,” she said. “We need to trust our educators to do what they do best.”
The state doesn’t need to spend money on a test to tell educators what they already know — that students’ learning was interrupted this past spring, she said, especially when those financial resources could cater to student needs.
Baca-Oehlert added that it’s critical to make sure that resources “are going to the right places,” particularly as students return to school in the fall after experiencing trauma related to the pandemic.
Troy Hubbell, a Denver teacher who specializes in special education for elementary school students, created the petition on Saturday to discourage CDE from pouring funds into an arbitrary state test. If transparency in how kids are doing is the goal, Hubbell said, it would be more useful to focus dollars on training teachers and finding the research-based best way to measure kids and empower teachers to use that for instruction.
Hubbell also highlights the need to invest resources in keeping class sizes manageable and providing social-emotional support outlets for students — the top priority for him.
“We have to make kids feel safe again,” he said. For a lot of children, especially those living in poverty, their days aren’t filled with very much predictability. School is largely the place where life feels safe and predictable to them. Students lost that, and educators can’t start addressing the academic deficits until they can get kids in a mental space where they can learn again, Hubbell said.
He worries that setting aside funding for a diagnostic assessment will drain resources without the promise of helpful outcomes.
“I think we’re going to get more information that’s not helpful and have less money for things that are,” Hubbell said.
Vranas, the Denver parent who was part of the idea for a petition, said parents like him want their kids to be focused on learning, not on taking tests.
“There’s many parents, including myself, that feel that a standardized test, in and of itself, will not lead to better educational results and that there’s plenty of assessments that happen in the classroom to help inform teachers of where their kids are at,” said Vranas, who has two children, including one entering kindergarten in Denver Public Schools in the fall.
The process of understanding where students are at is half the equation of what goes into a teacher’s job, he noted.
He added that standardized testing has been the promise of reform policy for the past 20 years but that it hasn’t advanced student achievement in the way it set out to.
“It’s time to get back to the basics of focusing funding on the delivery of education,” Vranas said.
A necessary starting point
But the organizations advocating for a diagnostic assessment are clear that it wouldn’t just be another test.
“I think it’s useful because it provides important baseline information coming out of the most disruptive state of education we’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Nicholas Martinez, co-founder and executive director of Transform Education Now, one of the 10 organizations calling for state investment in a diagnostic assessment.
Martinez said the state and schools owe it to families, to the community and to students to understand where students are walking back in out of remote learning. He said he knows there would be an appetite among some Colorado parents for that kind of an assessment. He’s heard from parents asking for it.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus and remote learning, he said, families have asked how they are going to know the progress of their student and how they’re going to know if their child is prepared for what’s next.
Martinez isn’t an assessments expert, but he knows that a test could offer a starting point to grasp how far a child has progressed beyond what was expected or where gaps exist.
“You then have additional information on the needs of your child,” he said.
Martinez realizes there are plenty of other important funding demands on the table, including the need to support classrooms and educators along with the social-emotional wellness of kids.
But this kind of assessment ranks just as high. “And without this information, how do we know where to start?” he asked.
He recognizes the challenge of trying to fund all necessities in a year with steep budget cuts to education and said it’s important to lead with equity in mind — which includes making information like student data “available to families who may or may not have been disproportionately affected by remote learning.”
When budgets get cut, they become less equitable, Martinez said, “and if we don’t have as much information as possible those cuts are disproportionately going to affect Black communities, Latino communities and our working class communities.”
Schoales, of A+ Colorado, said the organizations anticipate that there are districts that may have a good idea of where their students fall academically but not all schools do. It’s a patchwork across the state.
Large districts have greater capacity to invest in assessments, but smaller districts often don’t, he said. And in some cases, large districts make mistakes in selecting diagnostic assessments.
Similarly, some teachers excel at determining their students’ academic standing and others don’t, Schoales said, and teachers aren’t professional assessment designers.
A state-funded diagnostic assessment is just one more tool for teachers, he said.
Schoales said he has suggested to CDE staff that the department pull together a group of people who represent school districts and assessment experts to help guide them.
He worries about the futures of students if the state doesn’t move forward with a diagnostic assessment at a time there are significant gaps in areas like resources and capacity.
“We would expect things to get worse,” Schoales said.