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House weighs in with its own testing bill

The House Friday gave preliminary approval to its version of what should happen to the state testing system, less than 18 hours after the Senate passed its competing testing bill.

The House measure, House Bill 15-1323, is somewhat more modest than the Senate’s, with the major difference being 9th grade testing. The state’s 9th graders currently are tested in language arts and math. The House bill would continue that, while Senate Bill 15-257 would end those tests.

Here’s an illustration of how divided lawmakers are on the 9th grade issue: A proposed amendment to strip the testing out of the House bill died on a 29-33 vote, with three members excused.

The Senate bill also contains provisions on district testing flexibility that critics fear would lead to a breakdown in testing uniformity across the state and actually increase testing time and costs. The House measure includes a much more limited pilot program for exploration of new tests.

Both bills would reduce current high school tests and some school readiness and early literacy assessments. (See the chart at the bottom of this article for a detailed comparison of the two bills.)

For now both bills remain in their respective chambers. The House can’t take a final roll-call vote on HB 15-1323 until Monday at the earliest. The Senate could have taken a last vote on SB 15-257 Friday but moved it to Monday’s calendar.

It’s expected the bills will move out of their original houses simultaneously next week.

It’s also widely expected – and hoped – that both bills will move through both houses and then end up in the same House-Senate conference committee. (An alternative, perhaps unlikely scenario suggested by one lawmaker sees both bills going to Gov. John Hickenlooper and letting him decide.)

Key bill sponsors Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said they hope both bills will end up in a conference panel, which would try to reach a compromise plan.

“I hope we go to conference committee,” Hill said. “I hope that next week we have a solution,” Pettersen said, while acknowledging the situation remains fluid.

Both agreed that 9th grade testing and testing flexibility are the major sticking points.

There’s a third party to the discussion. Pettersen noted that Hickenlooper has signaled to lawmakers that a bill needs to include 9th grade tests if he’s going to sign it.

Supporters of 9th grade testing believe it is necessary to provide achievement data as students are entering high school. Opponents disagree with that, believe that students need more testing relief and argue that individual districts should have the option of using or skipping the 9th grade tests.

In addition to that issue, the House spent a lot of time on a proposed amendment by Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument and former chair of the State Board of Education. Lundeen’s idea was for the State Board to review five national sets of tests and then certify three that districts could choose from. Currently all students have to take the CMAS tests, which include the PARCC language arts and math exams.

That amendment provided Republican critics of the Common Core State Standards and of PARCC to take their last shots on the issue. (Neither HB 15-1323 nor SB 15-257 would withdraw Colorado from those.) Lundeen’s amendment died on a 27-37 vote.

Democrats and Republicans were on both sides of the debate, with GOP Reps. Jim Wilson of Salida and Kevin Priola of Henderson teaming with Pettersen to urge passage of the bill and resist amendments. The Democratic prime sponsor, Rep. John Buckner of Aurora, has been ill all week and was excused Friday.

Testing footnote: The last of the pullout of PARCC and Common Core votes, Senate Bill 15-233, died on a 9-9 tie vote in the Legislative Council. That joint leadership body mostly deals with legislative administrative matters, but it hears a few bills. Since the legislature has split partisan control, the panel’s membership is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. That gave council Republicans the political cover of being able to vote for the bill and still know it wouldn’t advance.

School finance bill passes Senate with last bits of rhetoric

The Senate Friday voted 21-14 to pass Senate Bill 15-267, the 2015-16 school finance bill.

A trio of Democratic senators, Mike Johnston of Denver, Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Andy Kerr of Lakewood, repeated unsuccessful pleas made on preliminary debate Thursday to funnel more money into the bill from the State Education Fund.

They argued that the state’s schools face a “rainy day” that justifies tapping the education fund more deeply this year, whatever the financial consequences for the state in the future. (Spending from the education fund becomes a future obligation of the state’s general fund, and many legislative budget experts fear the general fund can’t sustain higher levels of school funding.)

Bill sponsor Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, defended the bill as is. “This to me is not the end,” he said, inviting his colleagues to think creatively about school finance and other education issues in future sessions. Hill’s speech went on so long that at one point he said he wasn’t doing a “filibuster.”

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