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Lawmakers zero in on testing

Department of Education officials showed up for their annual oversight hearing with the House and Senate education committees Wednesday prepared to talk in detail about CDE’s five top priorities, but lawmakers were mostly interested in just one of those – testing.

That issue, including rollout of a CSAP replacement system in 2014, squeezed out time to talk much about other issues, including educator effectiveness, an emotional topic during the 2010 session. Department officials were peppered with questions about costs, use of online tests, new tests, participation in coming multi-state tests, promptness of results and much more.

The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids law mandates replacement of the current CSAP tests, something the department hopes to do by the spring of 2014 after two years of transitional tests. The State Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education recently agreed on a new testing system that, among other things, will add reading, writing and math tests in the 11th grade and also add statewide social studies tests once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school (see background story).

“I would be remiss in not saying that the funding is a challenge,” said education Commissioner Robert Hammond, adding that the department hopes to have a better handle on the cost of new tests by the middle of this year. “This will be on the table for next year” in the legislature, Hammond said.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and the leading legislative critic of CSAPs, said “to expand our testing system it’s going to be very costly … we don’t have a lot resources to be expanding” and wondered what say the legislature will have on costs.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, asked if 2012 and 2013 tests – which will be modified CSAPs that conform to new state content standards – could be administered online to save money.

“The department is not in a position to do that,” Hammond said. “That’s not even on the table.” But, he noted, “The whole goal of the new assessment is to be online if possible.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, complained that CSAP results are available until long after a school year is over and asked if that will improve with a new system.

Hammond said there won’t be any faster turnaround in 2012 or 2014 but that the hope is a two-week turnaround starting in 2014 – “That’s what we’d really like to do.”

“Two weeks is a laudable goal and should be a prime directive,” Renfroe said.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, had her doubts about that, saying that turning results would require going back to “fill in the bubble” tests. “If everybody wants fast turnaround we going to have to go back to that kind of test. … Do we have the computer infrastructure in our schools? This is a huge can of worms.”

Two groups of states are using federal grants to develop multistate tests aligned to the new Common Core Standards. Those were discussed as a way to save testing costs.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, urged the state to pick the system being designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, but Assistant Commissioner Jo O’Brien said it’s too soon to make that call. “They are five years away from being developed, and we don’t know yet what they can do.”

Too much information?

The morning’s discussion, sometimes couched in education jargon, was challenging for some legislators.

“I’m brand new to this committee and not familiar with the acronyms, so it was a little hard for me to follow some of the conversation,” said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County.

Another freshman, Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “I would admit that I’m kind of on overload right now. I’m the new kid here.”

Farewell to Vody

Legislative hearings may have theatrical moments, but they seldom produce standing ovations. But Wednesday’s meeting did when the crowd in the hearing room rose to applaud Vody Herrmann, CDE school finance chief who recently announced she’s retiring at the end of March.

“She’s been an incredible asset to this state,” Hammond said, adding her departure was “the last thing we wanted to happen.”

After the testing talk died down, Herrmann had a few minutes at the end of the session to brief the lawmakers on school finance, asking them to make timely decisions on K-12 budget cuts because “Districts are waiting … the sooner the decision can be made the better it is for districts.”

She also highlighted the increasing gap between growing, larger, wealthier districts and declining, smaller poorer districts.

“As you look forward, since I’m not going to be here, please remember these equity issues.”

The department has five major initiatives for 2011 – implementation of new state content standards, new tests, the new district accountability system and educator effectiveness measures, plus raising awareness and knowledge about those initiatives. CDE detailed those in a 73-page briefing paper prepared for lawmakers.

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