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Noonan: Double deja vu all over again in the state’s world of public education

Author: Paula Noonan - June 30, 2017 - Updated: June 28, 2017

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Once again, Colorado’s public education system will both re-vision and offer new standardized tests. It’s useful that the two projects happen at the same time, but only if fresh eyes and minds are put to the task. Let’s hold our breath.

Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne will fulfill Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order to restart the 2011 Education Leadership Council that recently dissolved. The original council, also the product of a Hickenlooper executive order, helped to sponsor Amendment 66 to reconfigure the school finance budget with a roughly billion-dollar tax ask. That fizzled in 2013.

The first council was composed of public education regulars, including current candidate for governor and former state Sen. Michael Johnston. He wrote the bill that led to the fizzled Amendment 66. While it’s expected and appropriate for education association leaders to join the council, Lynne should look beyond the usual suspects for members.

Lynne was a member of the 2013 task force that studied the state’s standardized testing program. That study concluded that CDE should implement the PARCC consortium tests. Now Colorado has finally quit the PARCC tests developed by Pearson Co. The tests are expensive, hard to implement, take too much time to deliver and don’t provide timely results. These are precisely the problems critics brought up in 2013. Thousands of Colorado’s children have rejected the annual exams, “opting out” every spring.

Joyce Zurkowski of the Colorado Department of Education will lead the new standardized testing effort. She also led the previous PARCC standardized testing program. Pearson is the “new” standardized test vendor. The testing conglomerate will get $139 million over seven years to redo the tests, this time, ostensibly, with more input from Colorado educators and teachers.

According to Katy Anthes, CDE commissioner, its committee selected Pearson because “Pearson has been providing the testing for CMAS (aka PARCC tests) for a number of years … the transition to the new contract should be seamless for educators and students.” Ever hopeful, Anthes added, “Educators and students are familiar with Pearson’s systems, so this will allow them to continue to concentrate on teaching and learning the Colorado Academic Standards.”

To fend off student data privacy advocates, Zurkowski noted that Pearson was also selected because “only its systems are currently capable of protecting student personally identifiable information in accordance with Colorado’s requirements.” This particular Pearson feature occurred over its nearly dead body when parents objected to how the state’s PARCC tests didn’t protect students from data piracy.

The governor wants the state to be competitive in the global marketplace. “We must improve high school graduation rates, close our higher education attainment gap and dramatically increase the number of post-secondary credentials earned by the state’s workforce” states his executive order. That’s pretty much what he wanted in 2011.

Since then, the state’s student achievement numbers are flat and the high school four-year graduation rate is bad at 78 percent. The state needs about 3,000 new teachers. Its colleges of education aren’t filling that pipeline. Teacher salaries don’t compete with other professions either at the early or late career end. The state continues with its funding “negative factor,” although the legislature recently gave it a prettier name.

The most important action this council can take is to figure out a disciplined education funding tax request. If citizens know exactly where money will go to solve the specifics of compensation, graduation rates and remediation while reducing time consuming and unproductive testing, the council may do some good. Don’t breathe yet.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.