Codie Egart works on her laptop while her two sons focus on their homework in the living room of their Denver home on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Egart hopes Colorado pauses CMAS testing this spring, concerned it will be a challenge to evaluate what students have learned this year. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

As Colorado’s Teacher of the Year, I can tell you that annual standardized testing in our schools is a runaway car, ready to crash and burn our students if we don’t pump the brakes now. 

Spring Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) and ACCESS English-proficiency tests have the potential to do serious harm to students’ learning and mental health during a year that has already taken its toll. 

While I’m grateful that Colorado legislators introduced House Bill 1161 to cut back on the number of tests to give students some relief, it frankly doesn’t go far enough. 

Gerardo Muñoz

What are my students grappling with this year? 

One student’s mother is raising three kids alone, living below the poverty line. Too terrified to leave home during the COVID-19 pandemic – and too broke to put food on the table –  the family relied on our Denver school for groceries in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Another student has lost multiple elders, an entire generation of family members, to COVID. This once energetic, determined young scholar can only manage logging into our virtual class. They no longer turn on the mic, comment in the chat, or turn in work.

A third student can’t turn on the camera and mic because it’s too loud in his small apartment with three other siblings, all remote learning virtually on top of each other.

Slow and unreliable internet forces too many students to log off and watch the recorded class later, when their questions and confusions go unaddressed.

Staring at a screen for eight hours a day, feeling isolation and anxiety, mourning the loss of their high school experience, or missing their friends has resulted in a social/emotional nosedive for many of my students – and I’m worried for them every hour of every day of every week. 

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All these students are trying to thrive during a time when simple survival isn’t assured. Lest there are cynical readers out there, they never ask for extra time. They inform me that their work may be late, substandard, or haphazardly completed because they or their family is in crisis. 

That’s the wildest thing to me: zero percent of my students seem to be leveraging their pain or situations to get out of work. Quite the contrary, they are trying with everything they have, to meet expectations. Their greatest fear is to let members of their community down. 

Given the struggles of students this year, it should be clear that this is not the time to require standardized testing. 

For one thing, school districts across the state – including Denver Public Schools – have said the data from recent in-district assessments has no quantitative value because there are too many factors to take into account when attempting to understand, let alone act, on these results. 

Did a student perform poorly because they did not have effective math instruction last year? Did she perform poorly because she was hungry? Or because she was looking through a window at a dying relative? I am not going for the dramatic; these are my student’s actual situations.

The second reason to pause standardized tests should be painfully obvious – students need more instructional time with their teachers after this monumental collapse in schooling. 

One of my students was taken out four times in six class periods for testing, missing nearly a week of instruction in my class. If we truly want to keep our students engaged and learning, we cannot afford to pull them out of instruction for tests with so little utility.

My final – and most important – argument is that we continue to fail in our half-hearted attempts to support students’ mental health during this traumatic and dangerous time. The extremely expensive cost of administering tests could be much better spent securing and creating access to the social/emotional wellness resources that our students sorely need.

HB 1161 will give us some relief as we try to focus on in-class instruction, but I wish we would simply seek a waiver from federal testing mandates to avoid the material and non-material costs that far outweigh any benefit. 

After all, it is our youth who will pay the price for our failure to properly serve them.

With 22 years of high school and middle school social studies teaching experience in Denver Public Schools, Gerardo Muñoz is the current Colorado Teacher of the Year and co-host of the podcast, Too Dope Teachers and a Mic.

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