SOUTHERN COLORADO — More than a thousand Colorado teachers, parents, and students have signed a petition calling for the state to forgo spring testing for English proficiency.
ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State) for emerging bilingual students is required by state and federal law for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The scores tell educators what level of English proficiency a student has reached as well as helps determine if a student has reached enough English proficiency to stop receiving the federally required services.
Advocates are raising safety concerns over the test since it's required to be taken in-person and most of the students taking it are Hispanic, Black, and Asian.
"We received a call from a teacher that was concerned about the instructions they had received from training with the Colorado Department of Education. Those instructions basically stated in very strong terms that all emerging bilingual students, all students who were in a program of English Language Development were required to take a language proficiency in-person," said Jorge Garcia, Colorado Association for Bilingual Education.
After teachers raised concerns, Garcia said their organization drafted a letter to submit to the Colorado Department of Education requesting for the test to be postponed until the pandemic improves.
"Knowing the data regarding the health and mortality rates for the populations that we're dealing with, we decided to write a letter to the commissioner of education asking her to meet with us," said Garcia.
In the letter, Garcia included information on how the pandemic is impacting communities of color and national data to show that it's something not only happening in Colorado but across the United States. After drafting the letter, they reached out to Civil Rights Groups and other organizations to co-sign the letter.
"It just started spreading and spreading. Before you knew it, in a matter of hours, we were approaching a hundred signatures of individuals and organizations. Today we have more than 1,300 signatures," said Garcia.
He says it's important that the test is postponed because students of color are disproportionately at risk of contracting the virus and the WIDA Access Testing, which entails multiple separate test administrations for multiple hours over multiple days, places the students at imminent health risk and harm.
"You can't get results from a dead student. If you're placing students in a position where they may literally die because the results are important, my argument is that the results aren't important enough," said Garcia.
The Colorado Department of Education says while they understand their concern, they believe schools are low-risk environments for the virus.
"The research that the Colorado Department of Public Health has done shows that schools are a relatively safe place. The transmission of the COVID-19 virus is not high in schools, they've been successful in implementing safety strategies to keep students and teachers safe. And mitigating any outbreaks," said Dana Smith, Colorado Department of Education.
She says it's important emerging bilingual students take the test to gauge the need.
"The test really gives us important information that allows us to focus resources on supporting kids who need help learning English and allows teachers to make adjustments in their instruction if need be," said Smith.
The department responded to the letter once it was submitted last week, changing some guidance for the ACCESS testing to allow for a more safe environment.
"We issued some new guidance for schools that they can do when they administer the test. Like spreading kids out, putting barriers up if possible, disinfecting materials and things like that to keep it as safe as possible to administer the test," said Smith.
The department also making the test voluntary and completely up to the districts and their families to have the test when it's safe to do so.
"We extended the window for when schools can give the test so it will be open from mid-January to mid-march which gives them more flexibility to find a time that works for them," said Smith. "We have a lot of students learning remotely and want to stay remote and we respect and understand that. Since the test has to be administered in-person, we've told districts that they can invite these students to come in and take the test and explain the safety precautions that they're taking but in the end, it's up to the parents to decide."
Garcia and others not satisfied with the new guidance since it's unclear if the test is voluntary or required.
"You begin your communication with me that it's required then follow it up with but you can get out of it. To me, there's an internal inconsistency that says what are you trying to say. Are you saying it's required or are you saying it's voluntary, what we want is very clear communication that it is voluntary," said Garcia.
He says the department needs to make it clear to the families of these students that it's voluntary.
"They have been told for years and years that you can't opt-out. This group of primarily brown, black, and Asian students and families are the only group that is required and can't opt-out. If you're saying to them that they can, you need to be extremely clear and you need to say no one will feel any negative ramifications," said Garcia
Since the test is required by both federal and state, Smith says the department doesn't have the authority to cancel or postpone it. Only the United States Department of Education has the power to make those changes.
"That's an issue for the United States Department of Education and lawmakers to consider. Our role is to implement the law and we've tried to provide guidance to schools so they can administer this test in the safest way possible," said Smith.
In the meantime, they'll be monitoring the situation and possibly adding more safety precautions to ensure student's safety during the test.
Teachers from Colorado Springs District 11, Falcon School District 49, Canon City Schools and Pueblo School District 60 among those who signed the petition. Pueblo School District 60 wouldn't allow News 5 to talk with teachers, but released the following statement:
We are aware of the testing requirements for English Language Learners as set by the Colorado Department of Education, and our team has prepared a plan to implement the assessment. We will follow all COVID-19 health and safety protocols and will accommodate our students in a one-on-one and/or socially distanced testing environment aligned to ACCESS testing protocols, to further ensure the safety of our students and staff. Pueblo School District 60 will continue to provide instruction remotely through January 14th, with grades PreK - 8 returning to in-person instruction on the 18th. We anticipate facilitating the ACCESS assessments after that date.
Other local teachers telling News 5 while they support the test, they don't support students taking it right now. Training for the test is already overwhelming and it's been even tougher this year.
"We're all like I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe I am sitting here right now virtually preparing to give a test in-person," said Jaclyn McKinney, Colorado Springs teacher.
McKinney is one of many teachers who decided to sign the petition.
"After reading Jorge's petition I agreed with basically everything he said. One of the things that stuck out most was this is racist. It feels like we are exploiting kids, specifically our English learners, for funding," said McKinney. "We are just asking for this to be postponed or canceled."
She says most of the students have been at home for months not speaking English and not immersed in school like they usually are during the year.
"It's not going to be accurate data, any good teacher is going to know where their students are. I don't need a federally mandated assessment to tell me where my kids are, I know where they are, said McKinney.
She says a lot of teachers don't agree with the test going forward, and they've contacted the ACLU to help in postponing the test. The Colorado Association for Bilingual Education says they will continue to work with state leaders before moving forward with any litigation.