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New twists complicate testing debate

Developments Tuesday afternoon provided fresh twists to the Colorado legislature’s complicated testing debate, including introduction of a bill that would formalize the right of parents to opt out of tests.

The new measure also would bar the state from penalizing school districts for low student participation.

Also Tuesday, the Colorado Education Association issued a statement critical of Sen. Owen Hill’s Senate Bill 15-215. Union President Kerrie Dallman said the bill “takes a few, tentative steps toward easing the testing burden for some students, but it’s largely a bill of cosmetic changes. Most parents across the state will be left asking, ‘How does this help my child?’”

Those developments came just hours after Gov. John Hickenlooper publicly endorsed Hill’s bill, a move seen as an effort to shore up faltering support for the bill. (See this story for details on the governor’s news conference.)

Still unanswered Tuesday evening was the question of whether the bill will be heard as scheduled by the Senate Education Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Education lobbyists who’ve been following the bill don’t believe Hill, chairman of Senate Education, has the votes on his own committee to pass it.

But Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, told Chalkbeat Colorado Tuesday afternoon that he was considering delaying the bill because Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, might not be able to attend the hearing. Johnston’s father died earlier this week.

Hill wasn’t available for comment late Tuesday evening. But another committee member said the bill would be laid over for consideration at a later date.

(Get more information on the bill in this story.)

Reportedly waiting in the wings if SB 15-215 falters is a proposal – not yet introduced – by Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. A recent bill draft reviewed by Chalkbeat Colorado includes provisions that would ban testing beyond federal minimum requirements, allow districts to ask state approval for giving local tests in place of state assessments, give districts flexibility on when to administer science and social studies tests, and provide schools significantly greater flexibility in assessing school readiness and early literacy of young students.

The draft bill also would require the Department of Education to ask the federal government for permission to use the ACT test as the sole high school test.

Also, the bill would change the use of student academic growth measures in evaluation of teachers. Current law (which is on hold for this school year only) requires that growth measures account for 50 percent of evaluations.

As drafted, the draft bill would allow districts to choose what percentage they want to use for growth, but the level couldn’t exceed 20 percent. Growth calculated from student scores on multiple years of state tests is one of the measures used to calculate growth of a teacher’s students. Local growth measures also are used in many districts.

That provision is attractive to the state teachers union, but tinkering with the teacher evaluation system is anathema to the education reform and business groups whose representatives flanked Hickenlooper at the morning news conference.

Six other testing bills were introduced previously, but none of them are considered likely to pass. See the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this story for details.

Opt-out bill has wide support

The opt-out proposal, Senate Bill 15-223, has bipartisan support and 31 cosponsors, a significant number in a 100-member legislature. (Read the bill here.)

The Senate sponsors are Holbert and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Carrying it in the House are Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, and Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County, two legislators who haven’t been heavily involved in education issues.

The bill would require districts, boards of cooperative educational services and charters to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts. Written district policies on opting out would have to be provided to parents.

The bill’s summary also says, “The Department of Education and the local education provider cannot penalize the student, the student’s teacher and principal, or the public school that the student attends, and the department cannot penalize the local education provider that enrolls the student, if the parent excuses the student from taking the standardized assessment.”

Current state and federal policy requires that at least 95 percent of students participate in state testing. The federal government requires states to impose a penalty on districts that drop below that level. The penalty Colorado has chosen is a one-step drop in a district’s accreditation rating if participation drops below 95 percent on two or more tests.

While the bill doesn’t specifically reference the accreditation penalty, its no-penalties provisions presumably would prohibit that.

The new bill is in line with recent action by the State Board of Education, which voted in February to absolve districts of any penalties that might be triggered by parents opting their children out of tests this year. (See this story for details.)

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.