By Dr. Lisa Escárcega
Happy New Year! It was two years ago this month that I was sworn into office to represent Congressional District 1 on the Colorado State Board of Education.
My term started during the height of the pandemic which meant spending a significant amount of time on issues arising from it. An example included supporting the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) on prioritizing the spending of COVID relief funds from the federal government. The board directed the CDE to prioritize COVID relief spending on supports that would help catch students up academically such as tutoring and after school programs.
Recent data suggests that Colorado students are catching up although there are still significant gaps between student groups and where we would expect some students to be at this time of the year. Another pandemic-related issue was the administration of state standardized achievement tests and whether the state should require districts to even attempt the testing in spring of 2021.
In a nod toward recognition that the pandemic had a significant impact on students and schools, the legislature passed a bill that cut the number of required state achievement tests in half and suspended school ratings for 2020 and 2021. Both actions were ultimately supported by the State Board of Education.
For 2022, the federal government did not allow for states to suspend testing any longer, so Colorado resumed all state standardized testing in the spring of 2022. What turned out to be one of the most controversial topics addressed by the state board over the past two years was the social studies standards revisions which were finalized in November of 2022.
Colorado became one of just six states to include specific references in its new social studies standards to the history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender individuals within those minority groups.
With Democrats in the majority, the state Board of Education voted 4-3 for the more inclusive standards. By that slim margin we barely avoided the opposite of inclusiveness, something called the American Birthright standards used in states like Texas and Alabama.
Although relieved by the final vote, my colleagues and I know the battle for inclusive and honest social studies standards in Colorado is not over. All Colorado districts are now required to adopt local standards that meet or exceed the revised Colorado Academic Standards.
Given the current anti-inclusive movement in some districts, we can expect to see some of what played out at the state level revived at the local level.
The Denver Public Schools is a leader in the area of inclusive standards and has already made some of the necessary changes to their curriculum that meet or exceed the new state standards. Starting off this new year of 2023, the state board will be welcoming two newly elected members on Jan. 11.
Kathy Plomer will be sworn in to represent the state-at-large and Rhona Solis will be sworn in to represent the new Congressional District 8. Both new members have significant experience on boards of education, and they bring backgrounds in both public health and business.
Having engaged with both new members during their campaigns, I can say we now have a board majority that strongly supports public education! Looking forward to our work next year, I expect we will see several bills addressing changes to the accountability system used by the CDE and state board. In December of 2022, the state board heard a briefing on the state audit of the accountability system we have been using in Colorado for the past ten years.
Among other things, this system is used to identify schools with the most need for support from the CDE according to both federal and state education laws. The audit concluded that the state accountability system was achieving its intended goals according to legislation but noted that many stakeholders want to explore improvements to the system.
Among the themes for change is the request for additional or different measures in the state accountability system to show a fuller picture of school quality. I expect that most of the proposed changes to the state accountability system will be handed off to a legislative committee that could meet over the next year or two. A committee such as this would give opportunity for more stakeholders to have thoughtful input and to make recommendations. I and my colleagues will be following this topic and all of the education bills as the 2023 legislative session gets underway.
Dr. Lisa A. Escárcega was elected to the Colorado Board of Education in 2020 representing the 1st Congressional District (primarily Denver). She recently served as the Executive Director of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) that represents more than 2,400 Colorado education leader