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Testing issue coming back to the boil

The waning days of the 2014 legislative session may see a Democratic-sponsored bill to cut back on statewide testing.

Sen. Andy Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee, confirmed to Chalkbeat Colorado Thursday that he is working on a late bill that would roll back the currently scheduled expansion of testing in high school and also trim the frequency of social studies tests, which launched just this year.

Kerr said he has permission to offer a late bill and is working with interest groups and other lawmakers on the details of the bill. The clock is ticking louder every day, as lawmakers have to adjourn no later than May 7.

The Lakewood Democrat said he doesn’t want to jeopardize either federal funding or disrupt the state’s accountability system, but that teachers and parents have made it clear that testing is a problem, and the legislature needs to respond. Kerr said he has permission from legislative leaders to introduce a late bill.

News of Kerr’s plan surfaced on the same day that Senate Education voted 7-0 for a bill that would create a task force to study the state testing system, including such touchy issues as testing costs and the feasibility of testing waivers and parental opting out.

The hearing on that bill today had a distinctly political undertone, as witnesses critical of the state assessment system repeatedly hinted to committee members that testing would be an issue for voters in November legislative elections.

Rising parent concern about testing could be an issue for Democrats who are running in swing suburban districts – like Kerr.

Several witnesses made a point of identifying themselves as registered Democrats before they launching into their testimony to the Democratic-majority committee.

A large group of witnesses represented the activist group Speak for Cherry Creek, and Kerr finally quipped, “I’m wondering if there are any Democrats left back in Cherry Creek this afternoon.”

Testing took up more than three hours of the committee’s marathon session, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran until just after 8.

Almost every witness who spoke supported the testing-study bill, but most also stressed that they wished it did more, like temporarily pulling Colorado out of the coming PARCC tests and allowing parents to opt out of testing. The testimony was reminiscent of what witnesses said during a Feb. 17 House Education Committee hearing, the last time the bill had a full committee hearing (see story).

Here’s a sampling of what Thursday’s witnesses said:

  • “The amount of testing should be reduced. … It disengages students, who lose focus during testing time. We need to be smart about the time we have with students.” – Judy Branch, Douglas County School District professional learning specialist
  • “We as a culture are overburdening our students, teachers and schools with excessive testing.” – Rachael Stickland, Jefferson County parent activist
  • “Our teachers and students are drowning in the amount of testing we have. … All of this is taking away from valuable teaching time.” – Karen Wick, Colorado Education Association lobbyist
  • “I feel what has gotten out of balance is the amount of standardized testing that is external to the school” and not developed within a school. – Syna Morgan, Dougco assessment coordinator

HB 14-1202, which has a price tag of $142,750, would create a 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force to review how the state student assessment system is administered, how data are used and the impact of state tests on local testing, instructional time and administrative workload. The panel also is supposed to review the feasibility of waivers from testing.

The two party leaders in each house of the legislature and the chair of State Board of Education would appoint the members. The panel’s report and legislative recommendations would be due Jan. 31, 2015, and minority reports would be allowed. The bill’s appropriation is to fund CDE to study testing costs, potential effects of changes on the accountability system and do legal analyses. The department is already conducting its own review of testing, which is supposed to be used by the task force.

The bill started its legislative life as a sweeping proposal to allow individual school districts to opt out of state achievement tests, but it was quickly turned into a study by the House.

Another testing measure, Senate Bill 14-136, proposed a one-year delay in implementation of new academic standards and of PARCC tests. It was killed by the Senate Education Committee. And the House had a lively – but symbolic – floor debate last month on an unsuccessful amendment to remove funding for PARCC tests from the 2014-15 state budget.

Both the State Board and members of the CEA have passed resolutions urging that Colorado withdraw from PARCC.

Other decisions from a long hearing

Senate Education approved significant amendments to House Bill 14-1102, which proposed to impose new requirements on district gifted and talented programs and to provide some additional funding for such programs.

The committee approved amendments that would eliminate the bill’s original requirements that districts evaluate all students for gifted status and that all districts employ certified gifted and talented specialists to oversee their programs. Districts would be “encouraged” to do those things under the amendment. The amended bill passed 6-1.

The committee voted 4-3 to pass House Bill 14-1156, which would make all third- to fifth-grade students who are now eligible for reduced-priced lunches eligible for free lunches. Universal free lunch is already available to K-2 students.

For the record

The House Thursday voted final approval of two education bills. House Bill 14-1381 would set public information, timetable and student reassignment requirements for schools that are to be closed because of low performance. House Bill 14-1384 would create a new merit-based state financial aid program, supported by both public and private funding. The bill also would fund college counseling programs for high school students.

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