Colorado rural schools have chance to design own tests

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DENVER (AP) — Rural schools in Colorado that want to opt out of Common Core-linked tests can pilot their own assessments under a proposal passed in the waning hours of the state legislative session.

Elliott Asp, who is a special assistant to the state education commissioner, said Friday he expects more details to emerge when rural school leaders address the state board of education next week.

The plan was part of a measure developed after tough discussions that lasted months. While many lawmakers, parents and educators agreed that students were spending too much time on too many tests, they disagreed, sometimes bitterly, on how to lighten the load without undermining a system designed to ensure all schools were meeting students' needs.

The bill agreed on Wednesday, the last day of the session, ended some mandatory testing in early grades and late in high school but retained language arts and math tests in the third through ninth grades.

For this first time this year in Colorado and many other states, those language arts and math assessments were aligned with the Common Core standards. That led to debates that were less about the quantity and quality of tests than whether local control over education was being lost.

The Common Core initiative originated with the states, though it does have federal backing. It does not outline content or curricula, but sets year-to-year goals aimed at ensuring young people head to college or the workplace with a sophisticated grasp of language and math. To assess whether students were meeting Common Core goals, the states established two consortia to develop tests. Colorado is part of the consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Rural School Alliance, says it's too early to say what the rural tests might look like. She said the dozen superintendents interested in the idea lead districts with enrollments ranging from 100 to 5,000, and some like the PARCC tests and others might not want them as a model.

Rural districts are concerned about the impact on their budgets of the technology for PARCC tests, which are administered on computers, and of curricula required to meet Common Core's heightened standards. They also question whether it's fair to judge teachers on how students do when their sample sizes are so small, and worry that results from the new tests are scheduled to come too late to be useful in shaping a school's curriculum or a child's study plan.

Many of those concerns are shared by urban districts. Asp said there is room for flexibility, noting that New Hampshire this year got federal approval for a testing pilot in four of that state's districts. The New Hampshire Department of Education said its pilot, the first of its kind in the country, could set the stage for allowing its districts to reduce standardized testing and introduce more locally managed assessments.

The New Hampshire strategy was years in the making, and the process in Colorado is not expected to be quick.

"There's a lot of conversations to have," Asp said.

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