On at least one topic, it appears Jefferson County Education Association President John Ford agrees with the people his organization is fighting against.
At the board’s last regular meeting on January 15, Ford asked for the board’s help. (Later in the meeting signatures were presented asking President Ken Witt and members Julie Williams and John Newkirk to step down, and Jobs with Justice, led by JCEA communications director Scott Kwasny, failed an attempt to embarrass the three with a paid-for “Scrooge of the Year” award).
Ford informed the board that he plans to opt his own children out of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests this year — and he urged other parents to do the same.
If more than 5 percent of students don’t take those tests the school and/or district will automatically lose an accreditation rating with the state. Tests, including the state CMAS and PARCC, this year are slated to make up 50 percent of the evaluations of the teachers Ford represents.
Ford did not return requests for comment from Complete Colorado.
“I believe these tests are hurting our kids,” Ford said to the board. “My wife and I made this decision because we truly believe these tests are toxic.”
Ford’s rhetoric matches an organized effort of the JCEA’s national union. The National Education Association adopted a “Campaign against Toxic Testing” at its 2014 annual meeting in Denver.
Ford went on to say that children should be engaged in classrooms activities with their teachers instead of sitting at a desk taking numerous tests.
Witt, Williams, and Newkirk at least partly agreed. Later in the meeting, the three members voted to ask the state for a waiver from the performance-based component of PARCC’s English language arts and math assessments. The vote made Jeffco one of the first local boards to respond to the State Board of Education’s resolution seeking waivers, passed the week before.
Lesley Dahlkemper cast the Jeffco board’s lone no vote, and Jill Fellman abstained.
The move came with heated debate–this time over the legality of the waiver and whether or not the board was breaking its own policy by voting on a resolution that had not had prior discussion.
TO TEST OR NOT TO TEST
The board’s majority members didn’t want to wait for an attorney general ruling to determine if such a request is legal.
“I have seen the state board try to take issue on an action that we have raised in this board room and in board rooms across the state,” Witt said. “Tests are taking our teachers’ time away from their mission, which is instructing their students. We can make a good step here, take the right step to lower the assessment burden and increase the instruction time for our students. This testing begins in March and April. We do not need to wait for the attorney general to drag (his) feet.”
Dahlkemper and Fellman argued a waiver request could land the district in a lawsuit to defend its actions.
“I think if there is one thing this board can agree on is that we have concerns over testing,” Dahlkemper said. “We need to be smart about balanced testing. But let’s focus on being thoughtful. We have an attorney general ruling to wait for. But most importantly, we are sitting at this board table once again breaking board policy.”
Board attorney Brad Miller assured the board a waiver request would not cause legal problems and that a resolution does not require prior discussion.
“It is intended for matters of policy,” Miller said. “You have brought forward several resolutions already this evening. This is not inconsistent with that.”
The attorney’s explanation wasn’t enough for Fellman.
“I will not violate policy or the law,” she said repeatedly when she abstained from the vote. It is unclear whether board members can abstain from votes without prior board approval or a conflict of interest under Colorado law.
Waiving the March testing of PARCC will give more than a full day of instruction time back to teachers, Superintendent Dan McMinimee said.
McMinimee estimated it would add about seven and one-half hours at the elementary level, nearly eight hours at the middle school level, and more than eight hours in eighth to 11th grade.
“I’m not interested in how much time it would save,” Fellman said interrupting McMinimee during his presentation.
Ford said all testing is too much testing.
“It is predetermined that 70 percent of all students will fail these tests, and we are not willing to put our kids into an environment that fosters a narrative of failure,” Ford said.
Ford’s choice to opt his children out of all tests also came with a childcare request.
“We are asking the district to provide my family with an opportunity for a warm, safe place to learn during these tests,” he said.
Noting he was speaking as a parent and not as the JCEA president, Ford still urged other Jeffco families to follow.
“Our children are losing valuable educational time that can never be replaced,” he said. “You only get to go to fifth-grade once. And we’ve got to get this right.”
The board’s resolution directs McMinimee to have two plans in place, one if the waiver is granted and one if it is not.
Colorado Department of Education Commissioner Robert Hammond has said he will not grant any waiver until he gets a ruling from the attorney general. It is unknown when that will come. The Colorado Department of Education has instructed districts to continue implementing state and federal law until an official opinion is issued.
With the 3-1 vote, the board recorded one more split vote, a regular occurrence that provoked frustration from Williams.
“This is one area that we can all agree on,” Williams said. “One time that we can all vote together to do something that will help our kids and our teachers. You have an opportunity for us to all be on the same page.
“I am offended that you would call this a knee jerk reaction, when we have been talking about over testing on our kids. There is no downside to less testing. It’s a disruption to classrooms for weeks at a time. There are ways to measure our kids without spending millions of dollars mining their data and testing them to death.”