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State Board unconvinced on new tests

Sen. Mike Johnston made a conciliatory pitch, but the State Board of Education still voted 4-3 to oppose his Senate Bill 12-172, which essentially would commit Colorado to use future multi-state tests for language arts and math.

Johnston and cosponsor Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, met face-to-face with the board Friday, a little more than a week after introduction of the bill rekindled a smoldering legislative-board disagreement over the future of state testing. Also attending was Republican Sen. Keith King of Colorado Springs, who leans more towards the board’s views.

The smooth-talking Johnston, a Denver Democrat, did his best to be conciliatory. “This was not in any way an attempt to usurp the control of the state board,” he said, calling the bill “in fitting with the historical role of the legislature [on education] and deferential to you. … We’re highly optimistic we can find a way to work together.”

But Johnston also drew a line in the sand, saying Colorado-only English and math tests are “not the direction we’re heading.”

The board last year requested $26 million to develop a full battery of new state tests to replace the CSAPs, which are obsolete because of new state content standards. The Hickenlooper administration opposed the request, and the legislature finally decided to provide some $6 million for development only of new social studies and science tests, plus Spanish language and special education tests.

National English and math tests are being developed by two national consortia, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Colorado is participating in both but it isn’t a governing member of either. States that join a group’s governing board have a greater say in test development – but they also commit to use that group’s tests. The bill would require SBE to join one or the other governing board.

Johnston and the Hickenlooper administration favor the second group, known as PARCC. Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said he also leans toward PARCC if Colorado ultimately uses multi-state tests.

Several board members were concerned about whether Colorado could back out of a consortium if state leaders don’t like the tests that are ultimately developed. Board member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, said, “If this is what the legislature wants us to do I think there should be some sort of escape clause.”

Johnston said he’d be open to adding an escape clause to his bill.

There also was extensive discussion about quality of the national tests, potential cost savings and state flexibility in setting passing scores and using customized questions.

Johnston, as he has done in several other presentations, used an automotive analogy, calling the consortium tests a “Ferrari” and Colorado-only tests a “Ford Pinto.”

Board member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, said, “We don’t really need to build a Ferrari. What we need is a really good serviceable four-by- four because we’re in Colorado.”

“I’m not persuaded in the quality,” said board chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District.

But for some board members, there’s a bigger issue than all the others.

Schaffer said he fully expects consortium membership will become a condition for future federal grants, just has happened with adoption of the Common Core Standards.

And Schaffer said a future national curriculum “is what this is clearly all about.”

Lundeen said federal control of education is the “overriding issue.”

After the lawmakers left, board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, made a pitch for Johnston’s bill, saying, “They clearly want to work with us; they’re willing to build into the bill maximum flexibility.”

She added, “If we don’t support this … then we’re treading water.” Before leaving Johnston had warned, “I don’t think we are going to have a different result next year” if the board again asks for full funding to develop Colorado-only English and math tests.

But in the end, the board voted 4-3 to oppose the bill, with fellow Republicans Debora Scheffel of the 6th District and Marcia Neal of the 3rd voting with Schaffer and Lundeen. Berman, Schroeder and Jane Goff, D-7th District, voted no.

While Johnston probably can get the bill through the Senate, passing it may be tougher in the Republican-controlled House, where Schaffer, a former lawmaker and congressman, may have some lobbying sway. Johnston also doesn’t yet have a House sponsor, and the legislative session has to adjourn by May 9, making it possible for House leaders to let the bill “die on the calendar” without coming up for debate.

Regardless of what happens at the Capitol, Schaffer noted, “We’ve got to come rather quickly to some conclusion as to where we think the state should go with assessments.” The board could choose to join a consortium without legislative action.

Colorado currently is using transitional tests but needs new permanent tests to both fully assess students on new state content standards and to implement the educator evaluation law.