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Modest testing reduction bill advances in Senate

Colorado Capitol

A bipartisan bill that would reduce state testing in high school and early grades won preliminary Senate approval Thursday evening.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 15-267, the 2015-16 school finance measure.

Final roll-call votes could come as soon as Friday, sending the bills to the House, which seems headed down a somewhat different path on testing.

Key features of the testing measure, Senate Bill 15-257, include the reduction of state testing to one set of language arts and math tests in high school plus the ACT test. Other provisions call for flexibility for districts to use their own tests, creation of district pilot programs to develop new accountability and assessment systems, and the streamlining of early literacy and school readiness assessments.

An amendment added on the floor creates a one-year timeout for district accreditation and ratings and also a one-year extension of flexibility in using student growth data for teacher evaluations.

Senators debated the issue for 90 minutes. Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “This is a great milestone in our session. … This is a bill that you can wrap your arms around.”

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, urged his colleague to “cut back on the overload, the overwhelming flood of testing that is killing the joy of education. … We can do something about it right now.”

The main dissenter at the microphone was Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. Johnston, the leading advocate of education reform measures in past sessions, is something of an odd man out this year.

Johnston proposed amendments to maintain 9th grade language arts and math tests, which would be eliminated by the bill, and to eliminate the testing pilot programs, which he said would actually increase testing time and costs.

Referring to the bill, he said, “In its current form I think it’s pretty bad policy for the state.”

All his amendments were rejected. Johnston said, “Having fought the good fight, I’ll go eat dinner.” (As usually happens during evening sessions, dinner was brought in for the senators.)

Despite widespread debate and concern about statewide standardized testing, the 2015 legislature has been slow to deal with the issue. Thursday’s debate was the first floor consideration of a major testing bill, and it came on the 107th day of the 120-day session.

The House on Thursday again delayed preliminary consideration of its major testing measure, House Bill 15-1323. The prime Democratic sponsor, Rep. John Buckner of Aurora, has been ill this week.

A key difference between the two bills is 9th grade testing. The House bill currently would continue it, while the Senate bill would eliminate it.

Six of the 11 testing-related bills introduced this session remain alive, but SB 15-257 and HB 15-1323 are considered the major measures. Five bills have been killed in committee (see story on dead House bills). Senate Bill 15-233, which would pull Colorado out of the Common Core Standards and the PARCC tests, Thursday was sent from the Senate floor back to committee. It likely won’t survive there.

Also part of the testing debate is Senate Bill 15-223, which wouldn’t change the assessment schedule but which codifies parent rights to opt their children out of testing. The measure has wide bipartisan support. It has passed the Senate but isn’t scheduled for House Education Committee consideration until Monday.

There’s concern among supporters that even if that bill passes both houses, Gov. John Hickenlooper will veto it, but the legislative session will have ended by then, and lawmakers won’t have the opportunity to override a veto.

See the chart at the bottom of this article for a comparison of HB 15-1323 and SB 15-257 and for a spreadsheet of all this year’s testing bills.

School finance debate airs anxieties about tight budgets

SB 15-267 would increase K-12 funding by $306 million to about $6.23 billion next school year. Most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

The only discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that would be applied to the state’s K-12 funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That figure currently is about $880 million, and in the past it’s been as high at $1 billion.

Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026.

Johnston and Merrifield teamed up on this bill, offering a variety of amendments to both increase overall funding and to earmark some new funding for at-risk students. All those amendments were defeated. (See this story for more background on the finance bill.)

In other action

A lot of education-related bills were moving at the legislature Thursday. Here are the highlights of the day’s action:

Senate Bill 15-173 – This measure, intended to set new requirements for privacy and security on education technology vendors, got preliminary House approval after a surprisingly short discussion. Along with testing reductions, this bill has been a priority for some parent activists, but they’re unhappy with amendments added in the House Education Committee and approved by the full House Thursday evening.

Senate Bill 15-214 – The Senate voted 35-0 for this measure, which would create a legislative study committee on school violence and youth mental health. It’s the companion to Senate Bill 15-213, a more controversial measure that would open school districts to liability for violent incidents (see story).

Senate Bill 15-072 – A pet proposal of Joint Budget Committee Chair Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, this bill would have raised admissions standards at Metropolitan State University. Lambert argues MSU’s graduation rate isn’t high enough because it admits too many unprepared students. Metro leaders strongly opposed the bill, arguing it would hamper the university’s mission of serving non-traditional students. The Senate Education Committee killed the bill on a 7-2 bipartisan vote.

The House also gave preliminary approval to two bills of interest to small rural districts. House Bill 15-1321 would provide some regulatory flexibility to such districts and also provide $10 million in per-student aid to isolated districts with fewer than 1,000 students. (See this story for background.)

House Bill 15-1201 also carries a $10 million price tag. That money would be spread over two years in grants to boards of cooperative educational services to help small districts save money by sharing administrative services.

Check our special mini Bill Tracker for updates on all the key education bills still in play as the session nears its end.

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.

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