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CSAP: No black and white issue: Tests hold schools accountable for learning, but critics complain program wastes time, money

Kudos to the reporter for making an attempt to offer a diversity of views about the test.

Coalition President Don Perl said the word choice is intended to empower parents when they “deal with administrators who often bully them.”

Perl said parents are unfairly caught between wanting to do what’s best for their child’s education and not wanting to bring down the academic rating of their child’s school.

“They don’t want bad things happening to their schools,” he said.

Parents and educators must voice their objections to CSAP, said Perl, who laments the “deadly silence of teachers.”

By Danie Harrelson

Jeff Gonzales asked his parents last month if they would excuse him from the CSAP.

Jerome and Mary Gonzales didn’t immediately indulge their 14-year-old son’s wishes. They suggested he do his homework and get back to them with reasons why he shouldn’t take the annual statewide exam.

So the Redlands Middle School eighth-grader took the CSAP test this year, then spent his evenings after school and track practice pulling reports from the Web and building his case to avoid the exam next year.

“As parents, we’re going to look at his argument and the time he spent researching,” said Mary Gonzales, a former third-grade teacher.

Parents have the option of keeping their children home when students in third through 10th grades are given the Colorado Student Assessment Program test come late winter or early spring.

School District 51 officials say they don’t begrudge parents’ right to choose what’s best for their child’s education, but they want parents to do their homework, too, before they write off the CSAP.

Officials maintain the test remains a valuable assessment of students’ comprehension of reading, writing, math and science.

Approximately 450,000 students in Colorado took the test in 2005. About 1,500 didn’t.

District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland estimated about 12,500 students in the district participated in the latest round of CSAP exams, which wrapped up earlier this month. Approximately 39 students were excused.

Schools push for participation because students who don’t take the exams hurt a school’s overall rating. Children who miss the test receive a “zero” grade under current law. Those zeros are figured into a school’s average and become part of its School Accountability Report, a report card compiled annually for each school by the Colorado Department of Education.

Jeff Gonzales said he doesn’t blame schools for wanting him and his peers to take the tests.

“I understand that it is important ... to see kids in our district do well on tests, because nobody wants it to look like Colorado is not doing so well in terms of education,” he said.

“That’s where the emotion comes,” District 51 Assistant Superintendent Steve Schultz said. “If a school knows they’re going to get dinged in some way, that’s tough for them to say, ‘We’ll just let that go.’ ”

Schultz and other District 51 officials said parents have the final say, but not without school administrators explaining why it’s so important their child participates.

“It disappoints us when they (parents) do — only because of the information it denies us for furthering their (students’) growth, in terms of measuring where they are in reaching those standards,” Schultz said.

Chip Thomas said he got an earful from Central High School faculty last year when he requested his teenage son, Chris, be excused from CSAP. It didn’t change his mind about a test he deems a waste of money and prime classroom time.

He didn’t want faculty to try to convince him again when exam time rolled around this spring. He sent an e-mail last month to Central High Principal Jody Frost, asking that 15-year-old Chris be excused.

Thomas said he felt pressure from Frost to not keep his child home on CSAP testing days. He accused Frost of threatening to deny students the chance to attend Central based on their willingness to take the test. Chris, a sophomore, lives within Grand Junction High School’s jurisdiction, but he decided to attend Central High because his older brother played soccer for the Warriors. State law gives parents the option of sending their children to their school of choice, regardless of school boundaries.

“I don’t go there because I like the school and how it does (on CSAP),” Chris Thomas said. “I’m here for my friends.”

Thomas stayed home on the days his peers took CSAP exams. He said many of his classmates feel they get nothing out of the test and ignore faculty’s urging to give it their best shot.

“They look at it as a waste of their time,” he said, adding that some students throw their CSAP results away without giving them a look.

Chip Thomas questions the value of a test that students don’t take seriously.

“A lot of these kids come into it with a half-baked attitude,” he said. “Is it really worth all the money?”

CSAP critics point to the nearly $16 million spent to administer the test every year and the money Colorado could lose in Title I funding, which goes to schools that serve high concentrations of low-income students, if the state assessment folded.

District 51 officials stress CSAP has nothing to do with money and everything to do with gauging academic growth. The statewide exam is one of several measures the district uses to plot the performance of students and schools. If CSAP went away, the district wouldn’t stop assessing how much students have learned.

“If our goal is to help every student learn as much as possible and prepare them for college or whatever they do next, then we want to use a variety of approaches,” Schultz said.

But there’s still tremendous pressure out there to say the test does count, said Bill Larsen, District 51’s executive director of high schools. Three accountability systems to which District 51 and every other district in the state answers — federal No Child Left Behind guidelines, Colorado’s School Accountability Report (SAR) and accreditation at the local level — use data taken from CSAP to measure student achievement.

“It’s the one thing all three share,” Larsen said. “It’s a central indicator. For a principal to say, ‘We take it lightly,’ ... there’s three systems out there that are saying, ‘We are going to hold you accountable.’ ”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states set academic standards and establish a system for assessing how students meet those standards. SARs give Colorado parents information on performance and safety of their child’s school and comparisons to other schools.

That’s a lot of data being thrown at teachers and parents, Schultz said. But it’s essentially the same CSAP results being re-released and reinterpreted five times over the course of a school year, said Jean Gauley, District 51’s executive director of assessment.

The initial late-summer release of CSAP scores provides an overall average of schools’ academic rating. Gauley suggests thinking of it as fourth-graders at School A showing 57 percent proficiency in reading.

“That is every kid who sat in a seat in that school, whether they came in from Utah the day before or whether their parents said, ‘No, they won’t participate,’ ” Gauley said. “It’s all aggregated together. That’s the first snapshot of that school when teachers come back.”

What follows, Gauley said, is closer examination of that data to determine what it reveals about each student’s performance in relation to Colorado’s academic standards. Once the scores of students who were excused or weren’t with a teacher the entire year are omitted, faculty can better gauge how their students fared and what they need to work on. But while we’re trying to do that, Gauley said, “we’re throwing another report at them from the feds and the state.”

Critics complain schools receive CSAP scores long after students move on to the next grade. Kirtland said the summer release of scores coincides with the time teachers return to the classroom to prepare for the coming school year. CSAP results give teachers a sense of where their new batch of students stands and guides lessons.

Students at Holy Family Catholic School in Grand Junction don’t take CSAP exams, but they’re given standardized tests early in the school year, and teachers receive the results within a month.

When it comes to motivating students in third- through eighth-grade about the annual exam, Holy Family Principal Ann Ashwood said teachers explain the test serves two purposes: Results ensure students get the best education and teachers don’t rehash what they’ve already covered.

“For them to get the very best education we can give them, we need their test results because we use those test results to direct their instruction,” she said.

And, she tells students, “If you don’t want to be taught something you already know, show us you know it.”

Ashwood stressed the test is a snapshot of learning, but it gives teachers a road map of sorts. Third-grade teachers, for example, get an idea of what last year’s second-graders need to work on. First- and second-grade teachers examine the data to determine if what they taught worked.

The anti-CSAP group Coalition for Better Education includes on its Web site a letter parents can download and use to request their child not take the CSAP exam. The excuse slip charges the test “promotes competition instead of cooperation, and blunts, not stimulates, our children’s curiosity.” The letter acknowledges the penalty no-shows place on schools, but asserts it’s “not reason enough to perpetuate the sterile classroom climate created by CSAP testing.”

Coalition President Don Perl said the word choice is intended to empower parents when they “deal with administrators who often bully them.”

Perl said parents are unfairly caught between wanting to do what’s best for their child’s education and not wanting to bring down the academic rating of their child’s school.

“They don’t want bad things happening to their schools,” he said.

Parents and educators must voice their objections to CSAP, said Perl, who laments the “deadly silence of teachers.”

Patricia Lang is a former public school teacher who administers the CSAP to children on the Western Slope who learn at home and online. The Olathe woman’s job takes her from Durango to Steamboat Springs.

Lang maintains CSAP puts emphasis on reading and math and minimizes the importance of history, geography and civics. Kids may know numbers, she said, but they won’t know anything about the Bill of Rights.

“We are shortchanging our children educationally,” she said. “It’s this tiny little snapshot.”

Schultz doesn’t dispute that assessment. He said CSAP isn’t intended to function as a “stand-alone, high stakes, that’s the only thing, you do it or you don’t” exam. It’s part of gauging students’ progress.

“There’s a strong public sentiment that says we want our schools to be improving and always improving.”

Chris Thomas said his problem with CSAP doesn’t translate to every other test. He wants to play college soccer and knows he must get a decent score on the ACT to make that happen.

“It’s different when it comes to the ACT,” Chip Thomas said. “He knows that will make or break him getting into this college or that college. That’s a test he’ll work at because it does mean something.”

Meaning appears to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to CSAP.

Mary Gonzales said she was impressed her son put his all into taking the exam, despite his objections.

Jeff Gonzales said he understands the usefulness of assessments, but he wonders why his current grades and classes don’t cut it. Many of his friends are “outstanding students,” but their CSAP results don’t reflect that, he said. Gonzales asked why officials couldn’t pay surprise visits to schools around the district to “see how different schools create a different learning environment.”

“How can Redlands, as a great school, be compared to a Title I school?” he said.

Gonzales said he intends to keep asking those questions and building his case for not taking the CSAP exam next year.

— Danie Harrelson
Daily Sentinel



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