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Senate endorses rollback of social studies testing

Updated May 2, 11:45 a.m. – The Colorado Senate Friday morning approved a small rollback of state social studies testing on a preliminary voice vote.

The earliest a final vote could be taken is Monday, unless the Senate meets this weekend. That would leave three days for Senate Bill 14-221 to move through the House before the legislature’s Wednesday adjournment deadline.

There was a moment of parliamentary panic on the floor after senators, not paying attention, overwhelming approved an amendment by Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, that would have delayed 12th grade social studies for 10 years.

Democratic sponsors quickly regrouped and got Renfroe’s amendment repealed on a 19-16 vote.

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill on a 4-3 vote late Thursday afternoon.

During that hearing the proposal prompted nervous reaction from social studies teachers, support from mainline education interest groups and opposition from others who feel it doesn’t go far enough during 50 minutes of testimony and discussion.

“There is a big concern over the amount of testing,” said sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, referring to debate over other testing bills this session. His bill “makes an actual reduction in the assessment burden … in the next school year,” he said. Kerr is chair of Senate Education.

Committee member Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, wasn’t impressed. (Marble has emerged has a vociferous critic of proposals related to testing, data collection and anything connected to “education reform” in general.)

“This bill, it’s almost like putting a Band-Aid on somebody who’s getting his head chopped off,” she said. “I’m a protest vote because it doesn’t go far enough.”

The committee’s four Democrats voted to send the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee (the bill would save $335,190 in testing costs next year), while Marble and two GOP colleagues voted no. (Appropriations passed the bill Friday morning.)

The bill would cancel next fall’s 12th grade online social studies tests and delay them until the fall of 2014. The tests were given for the first time to 4th and 7th grade students statewide this spring. The bill would require the Department of Education to set up a “sampling” system under which individual schools would have to give the social studies tests only every three years. (Schools could choose to give the tests annually.)

SB 14-221 is a bitter pill for social studies and groups who lobbied hard to get their subject added to the list of subjects tested statewide. The State Board of Education voted in 2010 to add social studies to the statewide testing lineup of reading, writing, math and science. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, told the committee that SBE members had emailed him, urging a no vote on the bill. (Like social studies, science tests are given to only one grade in elementary, middle and high school.)

Social studies teachers pushed for testing because they felt teaching of their subject was being downgraded as districts focused on improving scores in language arts and math.

That fear was on display at Thursday’s hearing. “There’s been a dramatic increase in social studies learning” because of the tests, said Chris Elnicki, a teacher and member of the Colorado Council for Social Studies.

He said teachers are concerned “less assessment will mean less learning.”

Retired St. Vrain social studies teacher Kent Willman echoed the same worry, saying that without statewide testing social studies “is treated like a third-tier subject.”

But Lisa Escarcega, president of the Colorado Association of School Executives and a top data and testing and data administrator in Aurora, supported the bill, saying that the addition of science and social studies tests in the senior year of high school is putting pressure on school districts. She also was representing the Colorado Association of School Boards on the bill.

Doing both next fall could “create an abrupt loss of instructional time,” she said. “If we only to do one it would be something we could handle.” (Moving science tests to the fall of senior year wouldn’t be affected by SB 14-221.) Escarcega also was speaking for the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Expansion of statewide testing to the senior year of high school is a sore point for some parent activists, who’ve complained it interferes with students’ college entrance and Advanced Placement exams.

Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, also endorsed the bill, but she said, “We would have preferred it would have done more.”

Ilana Siegel, representing the activist group Speak for Cherry Creek, opposed the bill, saying, “We’re looking for something that will provide more relief for students.”

Kerr originally considered a bill that would have rolled back some other high school tests, but he decided against that.

“We really saw this bill as a compromise,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada and Kerr’s co-prime sponsor. Both Democrats are running this year in swing districts in Jefferson County, which has become something of a hotbed for activist parents anxious about testing and privacy of student data.

A bill that would have delayed use of the new PARCC tests in language arts and math was killed weeks ago. But another testing measure, House Bill 14-1202, passed the Senate Thursday on a 35-0 vote. It will create a task force to study the state testing system and make recommendations to the 2015 legislature, ensuring that the testing debate will drag out over the summer and fall.

Read SB 14-221 here, and see a legislative staff summary here.

The testing bill wasn’t the only item on Senate Education’s long calendar. Find out what else the committee did in this story.

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