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A big day of delays for State Board of Education

Witnesses planning to testify on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey waited outside the State Board's meeting room.
Witnesses planning to testify on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey waited outside the State Board's meeting room.

The State Board of Education had four big issues on its agenda Wednesday, but it delayed further discussion and decisions on all of them until May.

It was all too much for Democrat Jane Goff, usually one of the board’s most soft-spoken members.

“So far today we have produced zero,” she said. “Everything has been pushed off, delayed. We have accomplished nothing. Is there ever going to be something that comes out of this board?”

The day’s lack of action follows a pattern established earlier in the year, but Wednesday’s meeting set a record for the number of items put off.

And the day’s discussions spotlighted the philosophical differences among the members. Republican members Steve Durham, Pam Mazanec and Deb Scheffel, often allied with Democrat Val Flores, are generally critical of current state education policy, which has been set by years of legislation.

Near the end of the nearly 10-hour meeting, Durham said, “I don’t agree with” those policies.

“I’ve lived through four of five education policy crises starting with Sputnik. … None of those crises and all of the scrambling around didn’t improve education one iota.”

Referring to discontent about testing and other education policies, Durham continued, “There’s been a fundamental sea change at the legislature and in the public, and we’re dealing with a whole new set of realities.”

The four big issues facing the board were district requests for waivers from state testing, parent consent for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, possible reconsideration of an earlier vote on cut scores for science and social studies tests, and high school graduation guidelines.

Here’s a recap of the discussion and the delays on those four issues.

Testing waivers

In January the board voted 4-3 to allow districts to apply for waivers from the first part of state tests in language arts and math (see story). Attorney General Cynthia Coffman subsequently ruled that neither the board nor the Department of Education has the authority to grant such waivers. (Various forms of waivers have been requested by 29 districts.)

And, of course, the issue is moot because schools statewide have finished that first phase of testing.

Given all that, department leaders have recommended the board either deny the waivers or rescind the January motion. The board delayed action on either step in February, March and again Wednesday.

Durham, who made the January motion, said he didn’t want to take action so the board could “wait and see what the legislature does with this [testing] issue.”

The board approved the delay motion 4-3, with Durham, Mazanec, Scheffel and Flores voting yes. Goff, Republican Marcia Neal and Democrat Angelika Schroeder voted no.

Healthy Kids Survey

In February some board members raised questions about the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a questionnaire that asks questions about student health and issues like drug, tobacco and alcohol use. (Get background in this story.)

The survey has been criticized by conservative parent groups as intrusive and inappropriate. Critics also complain about the fact that in many districts parents have to actively opt their children out of the survey.

That consent issue worries some board members, and they were buoyed by an informal attorney general’s memo advising that active consent is required. But a formal — and overriding — attorney general’s opinion released Wednesday ruled otherwise (see story).

The board heard nearly 90 minutes of public testimony about the survey, with the vast majority of witnesses – health professionals, educators and members of advocacy groups — supporting the current system.

Later in the meeting, Scheffel expressed disappointment with the testimony, saying parents were underrepresented. “In some ways they [the witnesses] are paid to be here,” while parents can’t take time off work. “I’d like us to think about how we handle public comment.”

Saying the board needs more time to review the attorney general’s opinion, Durham moved to delay any discussion on the action until May. The vote was 7-0.

Science and social studies cut scores

If February, the board voted 4-3 to reject proposed cut scores for 12th grade science and social studies tests (see story).

Wednesday’s agenda included an item for possible reconsideration of that vote.

But Durham moved to put that off as well, saying, “I’d like to wait until the legislature has the opportunity to discuss the whole testing issue.”

The legislature is having its own troubles coming to a decision on the issue.

The proposed delay prompted some back and forth between Durham and Schroeder, who’s concerned that the board’s failure to set cut scores means students won’t get their results before they graduate – if ever. That’s “extremely unfair to the kids and extremely unfair to the teachers,” she said.

Scheffel questioned, as she has previously, the validity of those tests, saying they are “easy to manipulate” and are perhaps designed to create a “narrative of failure.”

The cut score discussion was what prompted Goff’s frustration.

Scheffel pushed back on that, saying, “depicting the nature of this work as confusion is misguided. … By delay[ing] and by surfacing issues and getting the public involved, we begin to have a deep discussion.”

The motion to delay passed 5-2, with Goff and Schroeder voting no.

Graduation guidelines

A 2008 law requires the board to adopt graduation guidelines for the state’s high schools.

There’s been some tension over this issue, as districts want maximum flexibility while some education advocacy groups want tougher, more standardized guidelines.

The board is supposed to make a decision on the issue by May 15. Members were scheduled to be briefed on the guidelines at Wednesday’s meeting. But the board was running so far behind by midday that Neal put the whole issue off until next month. (For more information, see this slide show that would have been shown to the board.)

The board even failed to reach agreement on a fifth, lower profile item. This involves tweaking state regulations to clarify whether students who are learning English as a second language should take state-required literacy assessments in English or their native language. It required a unanimous vote for the rule change to be approved Wednesday. The vote was 5-3. So the decision was delayed until May, when board rules allow it to be approved by a simple majority.

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