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Pair of testing reduction bills pop up in Senate

Testing task force chair Dan Snowberger (left) briefs legislators on the group's work.

The first testing bills of 2015 have been introduced in the Senate, one that would make extensive trims to the current assessment system and the second of which would cut back social studies testing.

Senate Bill 15-073, sponsored by Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, would require the state to cut testing to the so-called federal minimums and to ask federal authorities for a waiver that would allow use of the ACT test as the only assessment in high school. While such a request was pending, the ACT test would temporarily be eliminated.

Senate Bill 15-056 is a repeat of Sen. Andy Kerr’s unsuccessful attempt to trim social studies from the closing days of the 2014 session.

The two were among a flurry of education bills introduced this week, including an extensive “parent’s bill of rights” proposed by Republicans, a Democratic bill to cap student loan interest rates, a proposal to change admissions policies at Metropolitan State University, and a plan to boost compensation of community college faculty.

The Merrifield and Kerr bills are the first of what are expected to be several proposed measures on assessments. Republicans are likely to weigh in on the issue and also propose pulling Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards. It’s widely assumed the legislature will take some action on testing but most likely through a compromise, bipartisan bill.

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo

The Merrifield proposal to reduce testing to federal minimum requirements likely would eliminate science and social studies testing in the 12th grade, although the federal government does require a science test sometime during high school. It also would eliminate language arts and math tests in the 9th and 12th grades, tests Colorado gives now but that aren’t required under federal law.

Social studies tests, including those in lower grades, also are a Colorado-only policy. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for background on the implications of such testing cuts.)

The bill suggests temporarily eliminating the ACT test, now given to all 11th graders, but also would require the state to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver that would allow the ACT to be the only test given to Colorado high school students. (The state currently gives language arts and math tests in 10th grade.)

Merrifield’s bill would retain the school readiness and READ Act assessments and evaluations used in grades K-3 but reduce the frequency in some cases.

“It’s a work in progress,” Merrifield said of his bill. “I’m willing to listen to other ideas, [but] I think the bill as drafted now is a huge step.” He added he’s “optimistic” the legislature will be able “to make some advances” on testing.

Senate Bill 15-056, the social studies measure introduced by Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, would allow the state to give the new social studies tests only once every three years in every school. Only “a representative sample” of schools would administer the tests in any given year. Currently the tests are given to all 4th, 7th and 12th graders. Rollout of the tests last fall sparked boycotts by high school seniors in some districts.

The last-minute 2014 bill on social studies was killed in the House Education Committee. Kerr commented recently that passing the bill then would have saved some disruption last fall. The high school scores haven’t been compiled, but the 4th and 7th grade scores from tests last spring showed room for improvement (see story).

Lawmakers awaiting testing recommendations

Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, chair of the Senate Education Committee, has promised that he won’t hold hearings on testing bills until after the advisory Standards and Assessments Task Force presents its recommendations to lawmakers on Jan. 28.

Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger, who chaired the task force, briefed the House and Senate education committees on the group’s work Wednesday but, by pre-arrangement with Hill, didn’t discuss recommendations. (The group’s direction, based on its last meeting Monday, is fairly clear. See this story.)

Snowberger did say the diverse group generally agreed that “It does seem like we’ve reached the point where it feels like we’re over-assessing.”

Two Republican lawmakers used the occasion to ask about SchoolVault, an electronic tool developed by the Durango district to help teachers track student progress on locally designed classroom tests. Some testing critics have intimated that Snowberger somehow has a conflict of interest because of his involvement with School Vault and chairing the task force.

When Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, tried to press the issue, Hill cut him off, saying, “Save that for a personal conversation afterwards.”

Fresh bills cover wide range of issues

Other new education bills introduced as of Wednesday include:

Get texts, bill details in the Education Bill Tracker

Senate Bill 15-068 -Caps the annual interest rate that a private lender may charge for a student loan to 2 percentage points above the rate charged by the federal government. The bill also makes student loan payments deductible on state income taxes. The measure has been assigned to Senate State Affairs, usually considered the kill committee. Prime sponsors: Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville; Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.

Senate Bill 15-070 – Would eliminate state licensing of childcare centers that serve fewer then 10 children. The current cutoff is five children, although centers with five-10 children can apply for an exemption. Prime sponsors: Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud; Rep. Janek Joshi, R-Colorado Springs.

Senate Bill 15-072 – Reclassifies Metro State as a “moderately selective” institution. Metro currently is classified as “modified open admission,” which means students aged 20 or older only need a high school diploma or GED for admission. Metro officials didn’t request the change and say they are studying the bill. Prime sponsors: Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs’ Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument.

Senate Bill 15-077 – Creates a comprehensive “parent’s bill of rights” covering disclosure and parent consent on such matters as school records, health care decisions, making audio or video recordings of children, curriculum, sex education and other matters. It contains various opt-out provisions but doesn’t appear to include a testing opt-out. Other bill provisions cover medical issues. The bill was assigned to Senate Education. Prime sponsors: Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton; Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. (The two new legislators are father and son, respectively, and are among the legislature’s more conservative members.)

Senate Bill 15-080 – Expands participation in the defined contribution pension program offered by the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, most of whose members are in the defined benefit plan. Prime sponsor: Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs.

Senate Bill 15-094 – Represents this year’s attempt to improve pay and benefits for part-time community college faculty. Prior efforts have failed because of the considerable cost involved. Assigned to State Affairs. Prime sponsors: Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Kefalas; Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”