Last year, Colorado’s legislature established an “Accountability, Accreditation, Student Performance, and Resource Inequity Task Force”—a twenty-six-member behemoth charged with, among other things, making recommendations on the future of the state’s K–12 assessment and accountability system. The group has been meeting monthly since August and, to date, has been unable to overcome gaping philosophical differences as fundamental as the proper role, if any, of standardized tests in measuring academic performance. The committee’s dysfunction comes as little surprise, however, as its membership is almost evenly split between pro- and anti-reform camps.
Consider November’s nearly six-hour meeting. During a presentation from the Colorado Department of Education, the group reviewed a scatterplot showing the relationship, or lack thereof, between a school’s population of multilingual students and its accountability rating from the state. Other charts generally showed “weak” correlations between a school’s rating and key dimensions such as poverty, race, and higher percentages of special education students. Surely, this should have been received as encouraging news. Educators, in Colorado at least, must be doing something right if non-native English speakers and other marginalized groups are not unduly pulling down a school’s accountability mark. Chalk one up for demography not determining destiny, right?
Nope. This information, and what it suggested—that a school’s accountability score is not simply a mirror of race and wealth—was deeply unwelcome to the testing and accountability skeptics in the room. As if to underscore his dyspepsia, one member made known in no uncertain terms that the state’s facts would not get in the way of his opinion:
When you look at all of the talk around achievement gaps, when you look at the graduation rates, when you look at SAT scores, when you look at a whole host of things, a very clear picture is painted that not having your first language be English does create an additional challenge. I just wouldn’t want anybody to walk away from this [new state] data thinking, “Oh, your second language learners don’t have any disadvantage…”
In other words, never mind the encouraging data, let’s focus on the fact that English learner (EL) students are disadvantaged. And by extension, there’s little, if anything, that schools and districts can do about it.
Setting aside the findings from an external audit which found Colorado’s accountability system to be “reasonable and appropriate,” it has been criticized for lax oversight and little actual accountability for results. The task force has a rare opportunity to strengthen it, which is what needs to happen, but is instead bogged down in discord and just as likely to weaken or discard it. Indeed, a well-designed accountability system resting atop standardized tests has in fact been shown to help marginalized students.
To be clear, ELs and poor kids do tend to score lower on the state assessment, but the good news is that—according to the state’s accountability framework, the lion’s share of which is informed by growth rather than proficiency—these students are making at least as much, if not more, progress than their peers over time. Even so, the forces of resistance and repeal are bent on throwing out the accountability system altogether by either eliminating the use of state tests or by radically diluting the test results with more gameable indicators and rendering them utterly meaningless. This despite the fact that student performance largely remains below pre-pandemic levels.
Set up to fail, the committee is scheduled to continue its taxpayer supported navel-gazing through the summer. As former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once observed:
Among the weeds choking out growth and good government are the hundreds of boards, commissions, and advisory committees that have sprouted over the years. They devour time, money, and energy far beyond any real contribution they make. All address worthy goals, but often we could get more real work done if we spent less time conferring and more time working.
Colorado’s accountability task force certainly fits the bill. The outstanding question is what the group’s non-binding recommendations will mean to the future of accountability in the Centennial State.
This is where the political calculus figures in. The task force is charged with delivering an interim report by March and a final report by mid-November. Some believe it’s good that the task force is treading water. Dysfunction is our friend, they say, and, given the badly eroded condition of results-based accountability in Colorado and nationally, perhaps it’s best to avoid making things even worse. On the other hand, if and when the state legislature gets back around to the issue—which wouldn’t be until the 2025 session at the earliest—accountability opponents might argue that school reformers were given a chance with this body and failed to put anything on the table. In fact, an inconclusive report might be exactly what testing skeptics need to finally tip the scales in their favor.
All of this is a far cry from “The Colorado Way”: painstaking conversation and compromise with the goal of finding common ground and win-win solutions. Instead, what we have with this task force is—despite troubling signs—some members digging in their heels and sensing an opportunity to deep-six the accountability framework altogether. The silver lining is that Colorado Governor Jared Polis has been strongly supportive of testing and accountability. But come 2027, in a post-Polis world (i.e., the end of his second and final term), all bets will be off.