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State Board splits over testing and standards delay

State Board of Education members — who work hard to bridge partisan and philosophical divisions — fractured dramatically Friday over a new bill that proposes to delay implementation of state academic content standards and new tests.

During the legislative session the board meets regularly to consider taking positions on bills. Top of the agenda Friday was Senate Bill 14-136, which was introduced last Monday by several Republican legislators (see this story for details).

The discussion accelerated quickly after a briefing by Jennifer Mello, board and Department of Education lobbyist.

Noting that state content standards (adopted in 2009) already are being rolled out in school districts, Democratic member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver said, “I don’t know that we can support it when the standards are being implemented. It’s totally inconsistent with the work the department has done and is doing.”

Marcia Neal, a Grand Junction Republican, weighed in to say, “I have very little patience with this bill. We all know it is not going to pass. Why are we being dragged through this?”

She added that the bill seems “designed to make Republicans look bad.” Neal participated via speakerphone, as did three other members, giving the meeting an occasionally disjointed feel.

But Republican board chair Paul Lundeen of Monument, also on speakerphone, defended the bill, saying that public conversation only now is “catching up” with the issues of standards and testing. “Sometimes the fastest way to make progress is to turn around,” he said, adding the bill is “appropriate, in my opinion.”

Neal asked, “Are you taking this bill seriously?” to which Lundeen said, “This may be the first step in a long journey.”

Republican member Deb Scheffel of Parker described ideas behind the bill as “a grassroots effort on the part of parents … this bill addresses part of that concern.” Pam Mazanec, a Republican member from Larkspur, agreed, saying, “This bill is a response to a growing concern … and I don’t see anything ridiculous about it.”

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder said SB 14-136 would undo the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which mandated new standards, new tests and better alignment of K-12 and higher education. “I don’t think our education system can stand the kind of change” that would be forced by moratoria on standards and testing.

Neal moved that the board take a “monitoring” position on the bill – taking no position. Berman, Schroeder and Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada supported the motion, while Lundeen, Scheffel and Mazanec voted no. (Neal said later she neither supports nor opposes the bill at this point.)

“The motion carries. We’ll monitor this bill,” Lundeen said, ending the discussion.

The board also had a split 5-2 vote on support of House Bill 14-1182, a measure that would tinker slightly with annual state ratings of districts and schools for one year during the transition between old and new tests (details in this story).

The bill wouldn’t affect possible board interventions in struggling districts that have reached the end of the five-year “accountability clock.” Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said failure to pass the bill would mean such districts “basically get a hold harmless year.”

Lundeen said, “I’ve got a little bit of heartburn with this” without elaborating, and he and Scheffel voted against the motion to support the bill.

Not on the board’s agenda was House Bill 14-1202, a measure introduced Thursday that would allow school districts to waive out of some state testing requirements. It’s backed by the Douglas County school board (see story here).

Testing will be on the board’s agenda later this month, when it’s scheduled to hold a study session on the topic.

Hammond also told Chalkbeat Colorado earlier this week that CDE is working with WestEd, an education consulting organization, to study the implementation of new Colorado tests both this school year and next.

The intent is to “really study the intended and unintended consequences,” said Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley. The research will include surveys of districts and focus groups.

During the interview both Hammond and Hawley noted that implementation of standards and tests is required by state law and that testing and student growth data are the foundation of the state’s performance rating system for schools and districts and an important part of teacher evaluations.

“There’s not a way to go back in time,” Hawley said. “Our duty and our obligation is to carry forward with” helping districts implement the law.

Board members, who are elected from congressional districts, represent a spectrum of educational views in addition to their partisan differences. Anxious to increase the body’s influence on education policy, members have worked hard to bridge differences and present a united front in recent years.

But that unity appeared to crack a bit on Friday.

At one point, Berman (in the board room) said to Lundeen (on the phone), “I personally think, Paul, that you are making a strong political statement and are being very partisan. … If this board is to be taken seriously … you are not the leader helping us get there.”

Lundeen said, “I do seek board unity” but encourage “robust, open and wide-ranging conversation.” He said standards and testing are not partisan issues for the general public.

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