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Colorado’s education boss says student tests need overhaul

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Colorado's new commissioner of education, Dwight Jones, addresses Aspen educators on Wednesday at Aspen High School. ( Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN ” Colorado’s top education official kept them chuckling and applauding Wednesday at Aspen High School, where he gave an hour-long talk on his plans to shake things up a bit at the Colorado Department of Educa­tion.

Dwight Jones, Colorado’s new com­missioner of education, was on a tour of Western Slope districts when he spoke before a group of Aspen teach­ers and administrators.

Among the changes Jones predicted was an overhaul of the Colorado Stu­dent Assessment Program (CSAP) testing program, including the possi­bility that recently-arrived foreign stu­dents will not be forced to take the CSAP tests in English in their first year, an idea that drew applause from the Aspen teachers.

The controversial testing program, which started in the 1990s, has been criticized by some as not really con­tributing to a better education for the state’s children but is supported by others as being in line with the feder­al No Child Left Behind Act and a valuable tool in assessing student progress.

Jones also spoke of plans to encour­age mentoring relationships between districts with better academic achievement and those that are strug­gling, and asked local teachers to get involved in the state’s efforts to close what is called the “achievement gap” between certain districts.

“Certainly the majority, but not all the kids [in the Aspen School District] are high achievers,” he said.

But not all districts can say that, he continued, adding “the state’s kids are all of our kids,” and it needs to work to ensure that all get the chance to take full advantage of the different levels of educational opportunities Colorado has to offer.

Jones took over as commissioner June 1, 2007, after being elected unani­mously by the state board of education. Prior to that, he was superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, a post that was held by Aspen Superinten­dent Diana Sirko before she came to Aspen.

In fact, Jones told his audience of teach­ers that the first time he applied for the job at Fountain-Fort Carson he lost out to Sirko because she had a better grasp of the CSAP test­ing program than he did, since he had just moved to Colorado from Kansas.

According to his biog­raphical information on the CDE website, Jones has been in education for more than 20 years, including holding jobs as teacher, principal, assistant superintend­ent and superintendent.

In his talk Wednesday, almost as soon as he began, he noted the informality of the Aspen district’s dress-code and shed his suit-coat and tie, proceeding to tell several anecdotal stories to illustrate his philoso­phy that students of all colors and economic backgrounds can be successful if given the chance.

He also urged the teachers to visit the CDE website to check out the department’s newest educational initiative, called “Forward Think­ing,” which he said is intended to provide a platform for enabling disadvantaged students to do better in school.

“I guarantee that we don’t have all the answers” to such problems, he declared. “We need you.”

He spoke critically of the previous departmental administration’s strict use of threats that districts would be placed on probation if they failed to meet state test­ing standards. He once again drew applause when he declared, “I’m not going to punish you, I’m going to partner with you and say, ‘How can we help?'” Still, he emphasized, “There’s a lot of issues with CSAP, but you can’t just throw the standards out.”

Instead, he said, the state and local districts have to work together to improve the testing programs so they reflect the desired educational pri­orities.

Once again, he asked for the teachers’ participation, saying, “We need your help. You’re very good.”

Among other things, he said the state needs to reorient its assessment and mon­itoring programs to reflect student progress on an individ­ual basis rather than strictly looking at schoolwide results and a student’s standing as compared to rigid stan­dards, something the Aspen district has been doing for a couple of years.

He said the depart­ment is working on modifications to the testing program and the standards, and the results of that work are to be presented to the state board of education this spring.

One teacher asked whether the state has any advice for dealing with students’ testing anxiety, which he indi­cated has reached panic level in some younger students in Aspen, as young as 7 or 8 years old.

Jones said he was not well versed in the prob­lem and told the teacher that “accountability is here to stay.”

But he said it might be that the state has gone overboard in requiring testing of very young students and indicated flexibility with regard to requirements that second- and third­graders take the tests. “Let’s have some common sense about it,” he intoned, both about testing young students and about the timing and nature of annual battery of tests.

Jones congratulated Sirko for setting up his visit so he could talk directly with teachers, and said this was the only district to do so during his current tour of the Western Slope.

Sirko, in turn, declared that she views Jones’ arrival on the job as “a new time” for education in Colorado, adding “this is the most optimistic that I’ve been in a long time” regarding the CDE and the future of education.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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