Could ESSA Result in a New Kind of “Deflategate” in Colorado Schools?

You may not be a fan of football, but there’s a good chance you heard about the New England Patriots’ alleged under-inflation of footballs during the AFC championship game in 2015.

Here in Colorado, whether they realize it or or not, officials are trying to make sure a different kind of “deflategate” doesn’t hit the state.

Ok, so we’re not talking about football. This is about ESSA, or the Every Student Succeeds Act, and how Colorado plans to meet the federal education law’s guidelines around testing.

Specifically, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) is trying to figure out how to meet ESSA’s requirements on the number of students who participate in testing without deflating school quality ratingsa potential unintended result of schools receiving too many non-proficient scores from students who opt-out of testing.

Timeout, what’s ESSA, again?

ESSA is the federal government’s newest attempt (following No Child Left Behind) to give students a better shot at getting a good education, particularly those who have historically lagged behind their peers—students of color, low-income students, special education students and English learners. However, it gives states and school districts more input with how to implement the law. As a result, all states were required to submit an ESSA plan to the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE) just last week.

So, if you’ve got kids who returned to school this fall, you can rest easy knowing that Colorado submitted its plan last spring.

But why should that matter to you?

Well if you’re firmly in the middle class or white, or if you don’t have children with disabilities, and you speak English at home, you may not see a direct impact. But how the state implements ESSA, (pronounced ESS-uh) will affect your child, no matter their background. You may not identify with low-income families, people of color, or those who live with language barriers or disabilities, but the successes and failures of children within these communities affect every other.

Like every other state, Colorado’s ESSA plan had to set goals around standards (what students are expected to learn), tests, school and district performance and school improvement. Additionally, Colorado’s plan includes goals around effective instruction and leadership as well as Title I programs (which serve high-poverty schools) and implementation.

The expectations around testing alone will affect a significant number of kids regardless of race/ethnicity, ability, language or income. Colorado has to test students in grades 3-8 once a year in math and language arts. Students must also be tested in science at least once in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But, what if you think kids spend too much time testing, and you’ve decided your child will opt-out of standardized tests this year?

Well, when CDE originally submitted its plan, it had decided that no children would be penalized for skipping the tests.

However, officials from the USDoE called foul on part of the state’s plan around standardized testing.

According to ESSA, schools are required to test 95 percent of students. If your child happens to be among the first 5 percent of students in his or her school to opt-out, you’re safe. But any child who opts-out beyond that will be counted as non-proficient.

The more students at a school are counted as non-proficient, the lower the school’s performance, which could lead the state to identify a school as needing improvement, even though that may not actually be the case.

How is the state supposed to know if a school truly has low academic performance or if a school has been labeled as needing improvement due to having an abnormal number of deflated scores?

This is the kind of “deflategate” challenge the state wants to avoid.

The ripple effects of mislabeling schools as low-performing could be far and wide. Families looking to participate in school choice enrollment processes might not have accurate information to base their decisions. School funding decisions could be based on inaccurate information as well, not to mention the stigma attached to whole-school communities whose students who are inaccurately labeled as being non-proficient.

The state is trying to develop a new plan. Officials from CDE presented a variety of potential solutions to the State Board of Education in mid-September. The board plans to vote at its meeting in early-October before re-submitting its plan to the USDoE.

Be sure to pay attention to the state’s next play on testing. Your child’s scores, their friends scores and even the scores of kids you don’t know will have an impact on your school.


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