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Senate Education Committee advances three testing bills

The Senate Education Committee labored long into the night over amendments to testing bills.
The Senate Education Committee labored long into the night over amendments to testing bills.

Two major and significantly different testing bills were approved late Thursday evening by the Senate Education Committee, continuing the uncertainty about where lawmakers are headed on the 2015 session’s top education issue.

The two bills emerged from the panel after a drawn-out hearing that featured nearly six hours of witness testimony and another three hours of committee deliberation, including votes on long lists of amendments.

Senate Bill 15-233 passed on a 5-4 party-line vote, with majority Republicans supporting the measure. Given that it has an $8.4 million price tag, the bill has to be considered next by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Republican-sponsored bill would pull Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests, reduce the number of tests and temporarily revert to old standards and tests until new state standards and tests are adopted. It would also reduce from 50 percent to 15 percent the proportion of an educator’s evaluation that has to be based on student academic growth data.

Senate Bill 15-257 was approved on a 8-1 bipartisan vote, with only Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, voting no. It also goes to the appropriations committee.

Key elements of that second measure include the cutting of state testing to one set of language arts and math tests in high school plus the ACT test, flexibility for districts to use their own tests, the creation of district pilot programs to develop new accountability and assessment systems, the streamlining of early literacy and school readiness assessments and the extension of flexibility for districts in use of student growth data to evaluate teachers.

(Get details on these bills and all other 2015 assessment bills in the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this article.)

The committee’s votes basically kick the final Senate decision on testing down the road. With fewer than 30 days left in the legislative session, SB 15-233 isn’t likely to advance much further, given that it’s probably not acceptable to the Democratic-majority House or to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the House is working on its own testing bill, which proposes even fewer changes than SB 15-257. The House Education Committee heard testimony on a single assessment bill, House Bill 15-1323, on Monday but took no action (see story). The panel is scheduled to take another crack at that bill next Monday.

Testing has proven to be a tough issue for lawmakers, with disagreement both between the House and Senate and within the party caucuses. Legislators also have been subjected to a lot of lobbying, with teachers, districts and some parent groups pushing for significant reforms in the testing system while education reform and some business groups want fewer changes.

For good measure, Senate Education also passed a third testing bill Thursday night, Senate Bill 15-056. It would change the system of social studies tests. The bill passed 9-0, but its future also is uncertain.

One testing bill was killed. Senate Bill 15-073 generally would have reduced state standardized assessments to the minimums required by the federal government and made changes in READ Act and school readiness assessments. It was postponed indefinitely at the request of the sponsor, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs. He said many of its provisions were covered by SB 15-257.

The hearing provided a full-blown airing of the wide range of deeply held views people hold on testing, from parent Lily Tang Williams, who said, “Common Core is communism,” to Leslie Cowell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who said, “I urge you to stay the course on Colorado’s standards and aligned assessments.”

Individual witnesses – there were 47 — included parents, teachers, interest group representatives, business lobbyists, district administrators and more. Testimony was hard to follow at times as different witnesses spoke about different bills.

Representatives of such activist groups as the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Denver Alliance for Public Education, Stop Common Core Colorado and Seeking Equity and Excellence for Kids urged the legislators to reduce state testing and withdraw from Common Core and PARCC.

Some of those testing critics made pointed references to philanthropist Bill Gates and to his funding of education reform efforts, including Colorado advocacy groups.

Speakers representing the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Stand for Children, Colorado Succeeds, Democrats for Education Reform and A+ Denver stressed the importance of maintaining the state’s accountability and assessment systems without major changes.

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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