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Testing opt-out bill gets final Senate approval

Updated 9:45 A.M. April 7 – The Senate voted 28-7 Tuesday morning to pass the bill designed to protect parents’ right to opt students out of state standardized tests.

There were a few minutes of final debate before the vote on Senate Bill 15-223. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, again warned about the bill’s impact on school and district accountability. “We overreached dramatically … we will eliminate any meaningful information” about performance, he said. Supporting the bill is “a vote against transparency and a vote against accountability.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she would vote no, saying, “I want accountability. I want transparency.”

But prime sponsor Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “This bill is not about gutting assessments and evaluations, this bill is not about getting rid of report cards for schools and districts. This bill is about honoring the rights of parents.”

Voting no were Democrats Irene Aguilar of Denver, Mary Hodge of Brighton, John Kefalas of Fort Collins, Johnston, Linda Newell of Littleton and Pat Steadman of Denver. Roberts was the only Republican to vote no.

Although SB 15-223 doesn’t address the core issue of testing burden, it’s the first testing-related bill to reach the floor this session, so it has drawn wide attention.

The hour of preliminary debate on Monday was spirited but one-sided.

Holbert described the bill as a response to the legitimate concerns of parents and an affirmation of their rights.

“Thank you again to the parents of Colorado” for raising the issue, he said. “This is not an encouragement for people to opt out.”

Johnston came to the microphone to oppose the bill.

“I just think it dramatically misses the target,” Johnston said, calling the bill “grandstanding.”

As originally introduced, the bill would have required districts to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts and banned imposing any “penalties” on students, teachers, principals or schools for low test participation.

The issue of defining “penalty” emerged as a key question during committee debate on March 26. Amendments adopted quickly on the floor Monday narrowed that definition.

One clarifies that the bill doesn’t apply to local tests, so if a student declines to take a class final exam that can still affect her grade. A second change specifies that school and district accreditation ratings and educator evaluation levels aren’t defined as penalties, meaning that test scores and student growth data derived from scores could continue to be used for accreditation and evaluation.

Another amendment specifies that schools and districts should make good-faith efforts to have students take the exams and not encourage opting out. And an amendment adopted earlier in the education committee requires districts to inform parents about the purpose of statewide tests, in addition to informing them of their opt-out rights.

Much of Monday’s debate focused on parent pushback against testing.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said he had reservations about the bill but said, “I think we need to respond to the parents who have expressed deep concerns.” The Boulder Valley schools, in Heath’s Senate district, are a hotbed of testing resistence.

Heath referred to an open letter opposing the bill that was distributed by business and education reform groups, saying many of the signers are his friends (read the letter).

Other Democrats, including prime sponsor Nancy Todd of Aurora, Matt Jones of Louisville, Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Minority Leader Morgan Carroll of Aurora supported the bill. Kerr, like Heath, said his vote was reluctant. Carroll said she thought the bill was necessary to reduce the atmosphere of “punishment” in schools.

Johnston came to the microphone a second time to speak against the bill, saying, “I think we spent a lot of time building a fair system” of assessment and accountability. “This is contrary to the spirit of everything we’ve done over the last 10 years.”

Johnston’s argument is that test results based on participation rates of less than the currently required 95 percent of students won’t yield accurate data on school, teacher, and student performance. He said that could undermine the foundation of data that underlies all state education reforms of the last several years. He also warned that the state could lose $360 million in federal education funding for violating federal testing participation requirements.

While the bill has 20 bipartisan sponsors in the Democratic-majority House, it may face a bigger challenge there than in the Senate. And Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, reportedly has serious concerns about the bill. Finally, it’s possible the opt-out bill could be held up or even bypassed as lawmakers turn to and perhaps advance more comprehensive testing measures.

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