A recent audit of Colorado’s K-12 accountability framework highlighted fundamental flaws with the system, said Dr. Don Haddad, superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools.
The accreditation system, which tests students to assess K-12 schools, had not undergone an audit in more than a decade. St. Vrain Valley Schools helped to write the legislation that called for the audit, which passed in the 2021 session.
The third-party evaluation described the Colorado Department of Education’s system as “reasonable” — a word that is “very telling,” Haddad said.
“‘Reasonable’ is an apologetic word, a noncommittal word — it’s a word that says, ‘look, we recognize the problems, but you know, it’s reasonable, so let’s move on,’” he explained. “When you say, ‘it’s doing what it’s designed to do,’ that has been our point all along — that we believe that the accreditation system was set up to create winners and losers.”
While the St. Vrain Valley Schools typically score high in the state assessment tests, Haddad said he and other superintendents see fundamental flaws with equality in other districts.
“When you get into the content of the audit, you begin to realize — based on their own words — that if you live in poverty, if you have a disability, if you are a student of color, if you happen to attend a small school in a small school district, then the data shows that statistically significantly, in their words, you will score lower on the test,” Haddad said. “That’s a lot of students.”
School districts with advanced placement and career technology programs are likely to produce higher test scores, according to the audit.
“A lot of the schools in Colorado that struggle with poverty, and communities where their tax bases are so small they can’t generate mill levy overrides like the St. Vrains can and the Cherry Creeks can — they don’t have oftentimes those programs that the audit itself says leads to higher test scores,” he explained.
Parents look at those scores to analyze the quality of schools and even open enroll their children out of schools, Haddad said.
“The accreditation program harms the schools when the public is being misled to say that the lower scores are implied to be a lower level of instruction,” he said. “It’s also being used to accredit and rate school districts, so if you rate a particular school low, it’s going to be harder for them to hire teachers.”
The timing of the tests is also significant, Haddad said. The CMAS tests are administered two months before the end of the school year, yet the result is reported to the public “as if it were an end-of-the-year test result,” Haddad explained.
“That’s why the report says the individual student data is inaccurate, because if you test somebody two months before the end of the school year, and then you tell the public they’re not reading at grade level — well, of course not, for the most part, because they haven’t finished their grade yet,” he said. “There’s a complete misrepresentation … two months is a long time in the school life of a third-grader.”
The last day of CMAS testing in 2023 is April 28, and the first Colorado school district closes for the year on May 11, said Jeremy Meyer, communications director with the Colorado Department of Education.
“Districts are provided with flexibility in determining their testing schedules within the state-provided window,” Meyer said in a statement. “The department is supportive of testing third-graders last.”
The last day of assessments is normally the end of April, he said.
“Assessment dates take into consideration the entire state with the goal to allow districts to test as late in the year as possible while taking into consideration other activities that occur in the last few weeks of school (field trips, performances, final exams for older students, etc.),” Meyer’s statement read.
Once Colorado public schools begin to show overall increases in the test scores, the state raises the bar and changes the test, but doesn’t tell the public that, Haddad said. Many schools end up with lower scores, so the public assumes those schools’ performance has declined. They can then start to lose teachers and programming, he explained.
“When they label your school as a failing school, there are serious implications around that,” he said. “And then when school districts are under the gun to try and get a test score up, they don’t put resources into innovation and creativity or robotics, orchestra — all the programs that make a great experience for a child.”
CMAS science and social studies tests were introduced in 2014, and CMAS tests in math and English Language arts were introduced in 2015 — so schools across Colorado have been using the standards since those years, Meyer said.
Haddad said he’s not advocating to get rid of testing and high standards of school accountability.
“The system has to include more — it cannot be just a single test that determines your ability as a student.”
Students’ abilities in athletics, music, drama, debate and other areas also need to be measured, he explained.
“There are a lot of children who have immense talent and immense capabilities who are having doors closed because of a biased test that is being imposed on them, and because the way in which the system is set up is misrepresenting their ability as a student,” Haddad said.