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Issues starting to jell for 2012 session

Holding back third-graders who can’t read and adding a statewide high school test could be two of the hot education issues in the 2012 legislative session.

The two ideas got batted around Tuesday during a meeting of the Educational Success Task Force, and the discussion provided insights into what two key legislators are thinking.

The task force is a group of legislators and educators that is discussing possible legislation to help improve student transitions at key points in their educations and to reduce remediation when students get to college.

The anxiety level in the room rose quickly after Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, briefed the group on his idea for a bill that would hold back third-graders who are the furthest behind in literacy.

The day’s other big idea was the push by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, to use the Accuplacer test for all high school students.

His original idea of replacing the 10th-grade CSAP got dropped by the group, but King is interested in delaying the launch of new state tests in 2014 in order to raise money for buying Accuplacer tests. That’s an idea sure to generate heartburn at the Department of Education, given education Commissioner Robert Hammond’s repeated assertions that a new statewide testing system needs to launch in 2014.

Nervous reaction to third-grade retention idea

Massey told the group he’s considering a bill that would strengthen existing state requirements on districts for teaching literacy in grades K-3, require data-based interventions for struggling students and more parental involvement in interventions for struggling students. Students who start kindergarten in fall 2013 could be held back when they reach third grade if they have serious literacy problems, Massey said. (See summary of Massey’s idea.)

The idea immediately drew a raft of questions and concerns.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said, “Retaining a student is almost a guarantee they will drop out,” calling retention in grade “a death sentence.” Her comments were echoed by several other members of the task force.

Massey said retention in third grade would be “a last resort” for only the most struggling students – “functional illiterates” was how he described them. The idea is to encourage districts to work harder on literacy in the early grades, Massey said, adding, “We just need to work out the details.”

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “It seems like Chairman Massey is getting piled on a bit,” adding, “This is risky, this is scary but it works.”

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D- Aurora, said, “It’s really not about retention, it’s really about intervention. … I think it’s very promising.”

“The devil is in the details,” Massey said, adding he wants to get as many education interest groups as possible on board before a bill is introduced. He said Gov. John Hickenlooper is supportive “at this point.” Improving third-grade literacy levels is one of the administration’s education priorities.

Massey’s plan won’t be one of the bills recommended by the task force because Massey said it won’t be ready by the deadline for the group to finish its bill recommendations.

King keeps pushing on Accuplacer

King, administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, has long been a fan of Accuplacer, an online test administered by the College Board that is designed to assign students’ readiness for various levels of college classes.

Some Colorado school districts use the test now, and the state Community College System uses the test before placing some students in classes. King, the administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, uses the test for all his entering students and long has praised its value.

King originally suggested to the task force that it support a bill that would replace the 10th-grade CSAP tests with Accuplacer. Members, after discussing the issue at length Tuesday and a previous meeting, weren’t up for that. But they agreed to support the concept of a bill that would have the state provide Accuplacer tests to all school districts for administration to every student at least once during high school.

With another tight budget year facing lawmakers, the trick is how to pay for that.

King, in his trademark low-key but persistent way, repeatedly suggested that the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program be extended through 2014 so that the state could hitch on to national reading and math tests scheduled to be available in 2015.

Hammond argued strongly to the State Board of Education last month that TCAP should operate for only two years and that a new testing system should launch in 2014 in order to ensure the new Colorado academic content standards are tested and to ensure the new educator evaluation system, which is based on student growth as measured by test scores, can launch on time.

The estimated $25 million price tag of a new, Colorado-only test system has given many legislators pause, as well as the possibility that the CDE or the governor’s office may suggest that may be taken “off the top” of annual state aid to school districts, meaning a further cut in funds that go to classrooms.

CDE officials now also are suggesting that the $25 million cost could be reduced if interim and formative tests are jettisoned from the new testing system, leaving only the annual “summative” tests.

Based on information provided Tuesday by CDE Assistant Commissioner Jo O’Brien, King suggested extending TCAP for a year could free up $6 million that could be diverted to buying Accuplacer tests.

Hudak pointedly suggested that the money could be found by eliminating the TCAP writing tests. King is a long-time defender of the state writing tests.

Other straws in the wind

Several other education proposals are bubbling up as likely issues in 2012, which looks like it will be a much more active session for education than was 2011.

Here are snapshots of some of the issues already in play:

The budget: With K-12 funding facing cuts of $200-$300 million, this will again be a major legislative focus. The question of new testing costs will be a key subtheme in this debate. Higher education cuts also are expected to be a concern, and Massey is shopping the idea of a dedicated minerals severance tax to fund colleges.

Educator evaluation rules: Senate Bill 10-191 gives the 2012 legislature review powers over whatever regulations the State Board of Education issues in November. The debate over the rules has boiled down to state centralization vs. local district control, an issue that may get aired again at the SBE meeting Wednesday.

Charter school regulation: A task force has recommended improved procedures for both charter school authorizers and charter school operations. The state board still has to review the issue, which probably will come up in the legislature as well.

Online schools: Growing concerns about the quality of online programs and an Education News Colorado/Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network investigation have teed up this issue for 2012. Expect Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, to pursue this issue. The debate could spin off related issues, like changing the current system of counting student enrollment on one day a year, Oct. 1.

The Educational Success Task Force meets again on Oct. 25 to finalize its bill recommendations, which will be reviewed by Legislature Council, a panel of legislative leaders.

Education Success Task Force website