The State Board of Education Thursday got the full bill for a new state testing system, after having heard briefly about the down payment a day before.
“Wow is the best word I can come up with,” said member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, after the board was told testing costs could be $49.5 million in 2012-13, the last year of old tests and also the year when bills will have to be paid to set up new tests.
Earlier in the meeting, the board had a lively discussion about the federal No Child Left Behind law after Commissioner Robert Hammond announced that his staff is studying the possibility of seeking a waiver from some of the law’s provisions.
It was a weighty morning for the board, although decisions on both issues won’t come until later.
Testing transition won’t be cheap
The board late last year approved the “attributes” of the new state testing system required by a 2008 law, and Department of Education staff have been fleshing out the details ever since. Their status report to the board Thursday included cost estimates prepared by the consulting firm Assessment Solutions Group.
The total bill could be $49.5 million in 2012-13, Jo O’Brien and Joyce Zurkowski told the board. O’Brien is assistant commissioner and Zurkowski is the new director of student assessment. That estimate was developed by the consultants and includes both costs of the last set of old tests and of developing new ones, currently scheduled to launch in the spring of 2014.
(The board was told Wednesday that the department has requested $25.9 million for testing as a placeholder in the 2012-13 state budget.)
Test costs in the current 2011-12 budget are set at $21.4 million. After a new system is launched, costs are estimated at $28.7 million in 2013-14, declining slightly to $26.3 million in 2016-17.
The costs include not only those for the familiar statewide reading, writing, math and science tests plus funding for a variety of specialized tests for specific kind of students, the 11th grade ACT test, expansion of the testing system to include social studies and addition of 11th grade tests in reading, writing and math.
It also looks like use of multi-state tests won’t be an immediate option for Colorado, O’Brien and Zurkowski explained.
They said those tests won’t be ready until 2014-15, and that the transitional tests that will be used in spring 2012 and spring 2013 can’t be used for a third year because they don’t fully cover state content standards.
Zurkowski said use of multi-state tests theoretically could save $6.3 million in development costs for language arts and math tests.
Board member Elaine Gantz-Berman, D-1st District, said, “Obviously this is the big one. … I’m personally very torn about this. My number one goal is that we have assessments that are comparable across states, and I worry about wasting taxpayers’ money. … What in the world is taking the [multi-state] consortia so long?”
Consultant Ed Roeber said, “The consortia seem bent on reinventing all the issues,” adding “I don’t believe they will be ready in 2015.”
Roeber and colleague Barry Topol also noted that federal funding for the two test-writing groups runs out in 2015, making future support and costs uncertain.
The plan presented Thursday includes switching from pencil-and-paper to online tests – but the change would be phased in over five years. O’Brien and Zurkowski noted that the state’s current broadband infrastructure isn’t robust enough for online tests.
They also said the proposal assumes the new tests will take about the same time to administer as the current tests. (See slides of O’Brien-Zurkowski presentation to board.)
The key decisions the board faces at its Sept. 14-15 meeting include whether to go ahead with a new Colorado-only test or wait for national tests, whether to use other possible cost-saving phasing in of tests and how to handle conversion of certain specialized tests.
Member Debora Scheffel, R-6th District, said, “We’re just preparing to spend a lot more money. What do we say to the public in terms of return on investment?” She noted that the CSAPs have been given for 15 years, but overall student achievement and achievement gaps are little changed.
Hammond said he feels that current Colorado reform efforts will bring improved results on new tests.
The board may not have the last word on new tests. There has been mounting discontent in the legislature with both test costs and the amount of time schools have to spend on testing. At the end of the 2011 session the Hickenlooper administration toyed with the idea of a bill to reduce CSAP testing but decided not to pull the trigger. State board members lobbied against the idea.
Hammond sparks spirited waiver discussion
Shortly after the meeting opened Thursday, Hammond told the board, “We’ve formed a team to start the waiver process” from the NCLB law. “It would be a tremendous workload help for school districts if they had only one accountability system.”
School districts now must report data for the federal program as well as meet requirements of the state’s accountability and rating system, now entering its second year.
The federal law measures schools’ adequate yearly progress (AYP) and requires all students nationwide to reach language and math proficiency by 2014, widely considered to be an impossible goal.
The law is up for reauthorization, but Congress has been dragging its feet, and an increasing number of states are applying to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers. (Some even have threated to drop out of NCLB without permission.)
Frustrated with congressional inaction, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has become increasingly open to waivers. He’s supposed to announce rules for that in a couple of weeks, Hammond said. (See this EdWeek blog post for national background.)
To get a waiver, Hammond said, “We have to prove our statewide system is better than AYP, and we believe it is.”
“This is terrific,” said Berman, but some of her colleagues weren’t so sure.
“Is our system as rigorous as it could be? … I’m concerned about the subjectivity of our system,” said Scheffel.
Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, had the most questions about the idea, saying, “I don’t want to see Colorado lower the bar, and it seems to me that’s what’s happening.” Schaffer was particularly concerned about possible loss of an NCLB provision that requires districts to provide tutoring funds to students at some struggling schools.
Department officials tried to assure him that the provision could be retained under a waiver.
As a Republican congressman a decade ago, Schaffer was among a small group voting against NCLB. He recalled Thursday that he initially supported the bill and was involved in its drafting but changed his mind after sections on state flexibility and school choice were watered down.
“NCLB has been a colossal failure,” he said in an interview.
Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, commented, “There are some real risks at setting a bar that isn’t achievable. … There are things in AYP that are really not logical.”
Hammond noted, “Believe it or not, the department can apply for the waiver without the board,” quickly adding, “I’m not that stupid” – to laughter from the members.
“I wanted to bring it up today to solicit your feedback. … If you’re not comfortable with it we’re not going to do it,” he said. The issue will be discussed again at the board’s September meeting.
Teacher licensing backlog eases
Licensing director Jami Goetz told the board that the backlog for processing initial teacher license applications is now down to two months. It had been as long as six months in some cases and longer for some criminal background checks.
A combination of computer upgrades, additional staff and changes in state law have allowed the licensing office to reduce the backlog.
“We believe that within the next two months we will have a turnaround time of six weeks. … Our ultimate goal is to get this down to two weeks,” Goetz said.