Last Tuesday, the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) invited legislators to take an abbreviated version of the CSAPs, the tests used to assess whether students are performing to levels mandated by state standards.
The idea was to make lawmakers who will be voting on the governor's education package (SB-186) more familiar with what students are asked to know and do on the CSAPs. Notably absent from the test center were the governor himself and key Republican sponsors of the reform bill.
The centerpiece of the bill is two measures that would grade schools on the basis of CSAP scores.
One threatens a possible loss of accreditation for schools that don't achieve either an 80-percent proficiency level on the tests or a 25-percent improvement over three years. The other is a "report card" that would turn the lowest-scoring 30 or so schools each year into charter schools.
SB-186 would also require every high school junior to take the ACT test (a college entrance exam), make new teachers at-will employees following an initial three-year contract, and all but eliminate health education.
Nearly all the 21 legislators taking the test expressed surprise at its difficulty, which could bode ill for Owens. A number said the experience was making them rethink portions of the bill that inflict punitive consequences on schools that score low on the tests.
"My colleagues expressed shock at the difficulty," said Rep. Dorothy Gotlieb, a Denver Republican and member of the House Education Committee. "You can't just know things. You have to apply skills. You should have seen us squirming."
Gotlieb said that taking the test is making her reassess several aspects of CSAPs. She continues to support Owens' report card program, but now wants score reportage supplemented by demographic information.
"It makes a big difference," she said, "if a school has a lot of students who don't speak English and come from low-income homes. Should we be punishing schools like that for failing to achieve 80 percent proficiency or rewarding them for improvement?"
Several lawmakers said they want an adjustment in the scores determining what is proficient and partially-proficient after being told that a student could do C+ work on the CSAPs and still score partially-proficient.
"This makes me question the report card," said Sen. Stan Matsunaka, a Loveland Democrat. "We are not Lake Wobegon. All our children are not above average. If C+ work isn't proficient, how can we threaten accreditation for schools that don't achieve 80 percent proficiency?"
Coleman said "the slow, thorough student" is at a disadvantage in the CSAPs. She had reached only the first question on the math portion when her time was up. "If you fail to do five or more questions in any one section," she said, "they don't grade it. I got a zero on the math, no matter what my ability."
Rep. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat, also struggled with the math, scoring only partially proficient on the eighth-grade section. "I was surprised at the level of sophistication," he said. "A number of my colleagues scored partially-proficient in one section or another."
Majority party Republicans were conspicuously absent for the test. Only five of the 21 legislators taking the test -- the key cog in the centerpiece of the governor's reform program -- were Republicans.
The sole Colorado Springs legislator to take it was Rep. Lynn Hefley. She didn't return repeated calls to her office.
The Republican no-shows
Governor Owens' press secretary, Dick Wadhams, said his boss hasn't taken the test and has no plans to do so.
Owens was invited to take it last week by CASB, as was Commissioner of Education Bill Maloney and the entire State School Board. All were no-shows, as were bill co-sponsors Sen. Norma Anderson (R-Lakewood) and Rep. Debbie Allen (R-Aurora).
Wadhams said there was little point in the governor taking the test because his views on any portion of the pending bill were unlikely to change. He also heatedly defended the portions of the bill that impose punitive consequences for low CSAP scores.
"The governor's bill isn't the problem here," he countered. "The problem is the present system. CSAP scores show half our third graders can't read proficiently, a quarter of our fourth graders can't write proficiently, a fifth of our black and Hispanic kids can't do math proficiently, and half our Hispanic youngsters aren't graduating. The governor wants to save the kids, not punish them."
Setting up smokescreens
When told that taking the tests prompted a number of lawmakers to rethink portions of the governor's bill, Wadhams would have none of it.
"Governor Owens has acknowledged that changes are needed in the tests," he said, "but the problem isn't the tests. It's the people screaming about how hard they are. That's setting up smokescreens to preserve a status quo that is failing minorities. We're the ones who care about those kids, not the ones doing the screaming."
Anyone questioning the governor's proposal, Wadhams insisted, "is in the pocket of the liberal, anti-reform teacher's union. They're the ones who think it's okay that the schools are failing the kids."
"It makes me angry when the governor claims that students are failing on the basis of CSAP scores," replied Rep. Ron Tupa (D-Boulder), who sits on the HEC and teaches high school social studies. "This fixation on high CSAP scoring is creating a crisis that doesn't exist."