Colorado educators speak out agains the state's new role in a multi-state standardized testing consortia

When Colorado joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers in 2013, educators were worried. The partnership, which administers standardized testing for 11 states, would require schools to test students completely over computers on material that wasn’t taught in class.

This March, those worries are becoming a reality, and educators still don’t feel prepared.

The PARCC test, which will be administered over a seven-week period, became controversial amongst educators in the months leading up to it.

In February, District 60’s Pueblo Education Association and its District 70 counterpart, the Pueblo County Education Association, staged a protest in which employees wore black to school to “mourn” the loss of instructional time. The PEA and PCEA serve as unions for Pueblo teachers.

“Some people criticized the union for getting involved with protest but we’re the teachers. We’re the paraprofessionals who work with these kids all day,” said PCEA President Roxy Pignanelli.

Much of the frustration from teachers stems from a testing schedule that is more disruptive than that of previous tests, and a general sense that students are unprepared for the content the test covers.

The PARCC test will replace the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, which replaced the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

“I took the fourth grade math. It was really confusing. It was baffling. There are formulas and questions with higher order thinking. It’s really, really difficult.” Roxy Pignanelli, Pueblo County Education Association President

CSAP’s contract, which expired in 2011, was implemented as a result of No Child Left Behind. TCAP was employed as a temporary replacement until Colorado could find a more permanent testing option.

In addition to acting as a filler test, TCAP was supposed to transition students to the next test.

As a whole, CSAP and TCAP were pretty similar. Students spent about two days out of two weeks taking tests that covered four curriculum points, including science, math, reading and writing.

If TCAP was a transition, it wasn’t very gentle.

Nearly everything about the PARCC test is different, from the content it covers to the way students are expected to take it.

For one, the PARCC test’s online administration is new for a test of its caliber in Colorado. The test requires students to type every answer, which many teachers feel is past the capabilities of younger students.

Pueblo students have taken state-mandated tests online before, but none have impacted students and teachers as much as the PARCC and its predecessors.

The Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress, for example, is given to students at various points during the year to determine their academic progress. This test is used mainly as a tool for teachers to gage how students are learning, and which content needs more emphasis in class.

Pignanelli said that even so, she doesn’t think District 70 is equipped for the test’s online format.

“Ironically, we’re a technology district, and we’re not even prepared,” she said. “We have to schedule students in the lab.”

If TCAP was a transition, it wasn’t very gentle.

This scheduling process is part of the reason teachers feel that instructional time will be lost.

The average third grader will spend 9.75 hours taking the PARCC test, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Fourth and fifth graders will spend 10 hours taking it, and average middle and high school students will spend approximately 11 hours with the test.

This calculation, however, does not account for students who need extra time accommodations, or the limited technology resources in Colorado schools.

“There are schools in Colorado that don’t have any computers,” Pignanelli said.

The PARCC offers a hard-copy version of the test for such schools, but its format is intended for online use.

Most Pueblo elementary schools only have one computer lab, so schools will have to schedule each of their classes there, one at a time.

During CSAP and TCAP, all students took the test at the same time in their classrooms. Testing was completed after two weeks.

“Ironically, we’re a technology district, and we’re not even prepared.”

Since the computer labs will be completely utilized for testing during the seven-week period, technology instruction will come to a  halt.

“Testing has hijacked the last weeks of school,” Pignanelli said.

And that very technology instruction may be limiting students before they enter the computer lab for testing. For most schools, technology is an elective, so less emphasis is placed on its instruction. Children from low-income families may not have access to technology outside of school, either.

“Most children do not learn keyboarding until middle school,” Pignanelli said.

Further than technology instruction is the content students are expected to know before taking the test. Because many of the test questions are not necessarily covered in Colorado’s curriculum standards, Pignanelli said she thinks students are being set up for failure.

“It’s not because the kids are stupid,” she said. “These test questions are just not taught.”

Pignanelli, along with many other teachers who have taken the PARCC, said the test’s content is difficult, even for them.

“I took the fourth grade math. It was really confusing. It was baffling. There are formulas and questions with higher order thinking. It’s really, really difficult,” Pignanelli said. “The test tells us what students don’t know.”

She also said children with disabilities are not accommodated for in terms of test content.

“They’re all given the same test,” she said.

Also, older students may not necessarily care about the testing, she said–which is no surprise. Lack of enthusiasm (and incentive) has always been a hurdle for standardized testing.

Previously, students only had to take the CSAP and TCAP until their sophomore year of high school. They took the ACT their junior year and were exempt from standardized testing during their senior year.

This year, juniors and seniors are required to take varying subjects of the PARCC test.

The federal government only requires students, third to eleventh grade, to take one standardized test per year, Pignanelli said. For juniors, the ACT was enough to fill that requirement.

So, this year, juniors will be taking one more standardized test than is required of them by the federal government.

This national reaction to the test parallels many of the concerns in Colorado, and for Pignanelli, corporate interest in education is responsible.

“High school students only care about the ACT,” Pignanelli said.

Other states have also had experience with the PARCC test, and nearly all of them have decided to go with a different test.

In 2010, 26 states used the PARCC test. In 2015, only 11 states are using it, and many of them are new to it.

The idea that the PARCC test is more difficult than schools are prepared for has become a common theme throughout the country.

The Chicago Public Schools, which is the third largest public education body in the United States, followed Mississippi in opting out of the PARCC test in January. Chicago’s biggest concern was that students were too ill-equipped to handle the technological demands of the test.

This national reaction to the test parallels many of the concerns in Colorado, and for Pignanelli, corporate interest in education is responsible.

“If you’re a conspiracy theorist–and I am–you see that this is all about money,” she said.

Pignanelli is critical of standardized testing as a whole, and said she hopes the test gains enough opposition before its implementation to be cancelled in Colorado.

If that doesn’t happen, she said she is prepared to defend teachers who take steps away from testing.

“We will go to the full letter of the law,” she said. “We won’t back down to protect our teachers.”