A few times a week, one of Dan Maloit’s three young kids will dissolve into tears, often breaking down sobbing next to his home office or while hiding in the pantry or sitting behind the couch. The meltdowns are usually the culmination of frustration over school — as they struggle to answer a question or stumble through a homework problem.
He’s regularly pulled in two directions and left feeling like a failure, split between tending to work demands and stopping mid-task to glue together an art project with one of his kids.
Despite the additional stress of this school year, Maloit, who lives in Erie, hopes that Colorado students take the Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessments this spring so that parents and educators know how much the pandemic has impacted learning.
“Big picture, I think standardized testing needs significant reform,” Maloit said. “I think that it could be done in a better manner, but I think that this year, for all of our kids, we need to know what was lost.”
Yuriana Chavira, of Lafayette, finds herself calming the same kinds of crying spells among her own children. They’ll wail or yell and lose motivation to even log onto their computers. But the mother of four is against state standardized testing this semester, worried about the emotional toll it will take on her kids after a school year that’s already tested their resolve.
“I think it would create more pressure on them,” Chavira, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator.
In a regular school year, standardized testing draws impassioned advocates and fierce opponents among parents, teachers and state officials alike. But a year of disrupted classes, with students routinely trading in-person classes for hybrid or remote learning, has only amplified the divide between families who want testing and others eager to spare their children of the burden of another assessment.
CMAS is the main test Colorado schools use to assess where individual students in grades 3-8 need help in math and English Language Arts. Students in third grade, eighth grade and 11th grade are also tested in science. The assessments, which can be conducted with paper and pencil or electronically, further capture how schools and districts are doing as a whole. The assessment factors into district and school performance frameworks. Schools falling short can face accreditation consequences from the Colorado Department of Education. CMAS scores can also factor into teacher evaluations, which can be influenced by both classroom and overall school results.
Parents can opt their children out of CMAS testing, and if enough parents do opt their kids out, a school’s accreditation can be negatively impacted.
The state received a waiver from the federal government in 2020 and students did not take standardized tests because of the pandemic.
Polls conducted to understand how much support parents have for CMAS testing this spring have produced varied results, posing questions about testing in different ways. Gov. Jared Polis, who has school-age kids, has shown support for assessing students this year.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden’s administration announced that states must conduct federally required standardized tests this school year. However, the results won’t count against schools in terms of funding or mandatory changes, and states will have some flexibility in when and how they give the exams. They can also use shorter exams.
Even before Biden’s education department publicized that mandate, some Colorado lawmakers began scrambling to draft legislation seeking a waiver from the federal government so that Colorado could pause CMAS testing this spring. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and former teacher, is sponsoring House Bill 1125, which is directing CDE to request a waiver from the federal government.
Following the requirements released by Biden’s administration, Zenzinger is working on an amendment to the bill centered on collecting assessment data through interim local assessments.
“We think we can achieve that better than we can through administering CMAS,” Zenzinger said, noting that she’s concerned about remote students not being able to participate in CMAS testing. She’s equally concerned about the timeliness of the data with results not available until the fall and the possibility of an influx of parents opting their students out of CMAS.
That could call the validity of the results into question, Zenzinger said.
The bill will be heard Wednesday in the House Education Committee.
Denver resident Codie Egart is among parents pushing to hold off on CMAS testing this year. She isn’t convinced testing would be fair to students or teachers, or that it would yield valid results.
A standardized test would not be a good tool to evaluate what students have learned this year, Egart said. Learning conditions in Denver Public Schools have not been ideal for her sons, one who is in eighth grade and the other in ninth. Teachers have been there to instruct students and help them, she said, but a lot of schoolwork has relied on self-teaching. And students are often highly distracted when trying to learn from home as they sit in front of their computer watching their teacher, many with their cameras off.
Egart’s younger son, Maddox, 13, has a plan under the Individualized Education Program — which guides studies and outlines learning goals for students with disabilities or additional learning needs. Maddox has extreme test anxiety, she said, “that is almost compounded when he’s trying to take a test online.”
She is urging state leaders to take a step back and consider all the ways the pandemic has upended the lives of students and families.
“Just give students a break,” she said.
Egart trusts that teachers know how their students are doing academically and she also sees standardized testing potentially limiting the scope of what students can learn. Teachers may be forced to focus on preparing students for the standardized test when there’s so much more they likely need to cover because of missed classroom time.
“I feel like it contributes to just being behind as a collective,” she said.
Chavira, of Lafayette, worries her children have fallen behind academically, but her greater concern centers on the stress that CMAS testing could add to her their semester. While it’s true the tests identify what strides kids have made and what gaps are holding them back, she doesn’t see them as necessary. Her children — who attend Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer Elementary — take other tests at school and complete homework and projects that can indicate how they’re doing. Plus, she stays in touch with their teachers.
Kids are already stressed out having had to take courses remotely, Chavira said, and a test would only elevate stress levels.
“I need the teachers to have more time with the kids to give more attention to the kids than to a test,” she said.
Denver mother of two Ali Sweeney said she has heard all the arguments for CMAS, and not one of them has convinced her most people comprehend how the pandemic stressed the health and economics of school families.
“It feels like we’re pretending that COVID hasn’t created significant instructional, safety, logistical challenges for our schools,” said Sweeney, whose two daughters are enrolled in Steele Elementary School.
She cited interim testing used by DPS schools, describing it as rigorous and based on standards. Those tests are available to remote learners and the data comes back in real time to teachers so that they know how to proceed with their students, she said.
“None of that is happening with CMAS,” Sweeney said, adding that it’s not fair to demand that families who chose remote learning send their children in just to take the CMAS.
Sweeney feels especially lucky with her family’s circumstances. She’s been able to stay home, so her daughters haven’t had to spend a lot of time alone at home during the pandemic. The two fared well during remote learning in the fall, largely thanks to talented and dedicated teachers who have had long careers in the classroom, Sweeney said.
“I just really trust that they’re getting what they need,” she said.
She’s wary of putting her daughters through state standardized testing this spring. It would be more effective for schools to prioritize instructional time for students “to address the learning loss we already know exists,” she said.
“There’s an underlying stress that comes with living through this pandemic. We know that as adults. And we pretend that it isn’t affecting our kids. But they feel it…It doesn’t matter to a kid that their test scores won’t be evaluated in the same way,” Sweeney said. “What they know is that their routine is changing, that the teacher has a completely different way of interacting with them, that everything of interest is taken down out of their classrooms. And I have not seen an argument yet that would convince me to put them through it.”
“Our kids deserve the data”
Maloit, the father of three in Erie, believes testing would be helpful both to know where his children stand and for the state as a whole to know how schools are doing.
Test scores should not be viewed as positive or negative, Maloit said, noting the data should be used to identify where the state needs to allocate the most resources to help students in districts that are struggling.
“Our kids deserve the data,” Maloit said.
Maloit trusts teachers and districts with educating students, but he sees a need for a set of data that is standardized and that can be used to track the academic progress of districts and schools year to year. That kind of tool can also inform teachers on how their kids are doing and how their achievement compares to their peers in other districts — but that data should not be held against educators, he said.
Maloit worries about his own children lagging behind some of their counterparts across the country who have had more time inside the classroom this school year. His kids — he has a kindergartener and fourth grader who attend Niwot Elementary School and a sixth grader at Sunset Middle School in Longmont — have experienced in-person classes, hybrid learning and remote instruction this school year.
The school year has worn on them socially and emotionally, he said, and while they’re all getting good grades, “it doesn’t feel like they’re learning much.”
As lawmakers debate CMAS testing this spring, he hopes the decision they make is the one they believe is in the best interest of kids, teachers and districts — not their voter base.
“I’d like them to stop worrying about that next election cycle and figure out what the right thing is,” Maloit said.
Christy Cummings, who lives in Aurora, is also a strong proponent of moving forward with CMAS exams for the sake of the data. Her children aren’t in grades that take CMAS tests.
The achievement data will be critical for future training of teachers and for future education policy, said Cummings who is currently an adjunct instructor for the Colorado Community College System and previously taught middle school and high school for five years.
“This is unlike anything we’ve ever had happen,” she said.
Standardized testing will better reflect how successful remote learning is as it tests students for state-mandated objectives that teachers are supposed to cover. Other assessments districts offer like the Measures of Academic Progress and i-Ready assessments, she said, focus on pinpointing what grade level a student is at.
She acknowledges that it will be hard to compare data across districts as they educate different demographics of students but is firm that the data is needed to clarify how well remote learning works for kids — or doesn’t.
“I think it’s important that we gather data about how ineffective remote learning was this year,” she said.
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Denver parent Dipti Nevrekar echoes that need for data so that families like hers understand how remote learning has affected their kids’ education and how it’s going to impact their futures from an academic standpoint. Nevrekar, whose son is an eighth grader at McAuliffe International School, anticipates significant learning losses accruing throughout students’ time of remote learning.
She worries about whether her son, Seth Bartley, will have built up the skills and knowledge to be successful in high school next year.
It’s hard to know if he’s made progress with learning this school year, Nevrekar said. He’s struggled with his grades during remote learning, but she doesn’t know if that’s because of his ability or because of his motivation slipping.
And as challenging as remote learning proved to be for Seth, Nevrekar knows their household is in a fortunate position with resources like a reliable internet connection, computer equipment and a quiet and comfortable workspace at home.
“I can’t imagine how it is for families who don’t have access to those things or who may have barriers,” Nevrekar said.
She’s pushing for her son and his peers to take state standardized tests this spring so that they can practice test-taking skills in a low-stakes environment with scores that won’t factor into college applications.
Those scores, however, will help chart a path forward.
“I really think we just have to understand how lack of in-person learning could affect their educational futures,” Nevrekar said. “I don’t think we know that yet.”