School Testing Reform Bill Hits Roadblock

A bi-partisan measure aimed at reducing the number of tests Colorado public school students take is in limbo at the state legislature. The sponsors delayed the first hearing and don’t know when it will be rescheduled – if at all. Birkeland has more from the state capitol.


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Image: Governor John Hickenlooper speaking at a press conference to tout SB 215 along with Senate President Bill Cadman, Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, and Kelly Brough, the president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. The measure is now being reworked because several lawmakers in both parties say it doesn’t go far enough.

On average students in Colorado classrooms take more than two-dozen assessments before they graduate, and in some cases up to four times a year according to the Colorado Education Association. Critics say it actually means less time for overall learning.

“We are hearing loud and clear from parents, teachers, students from across Colorado that there is too much testing going on and we have to cut back,” said Senator Andy Kerr (D- Lakewood)

He’s sponsoring senate bill 215 along with Senator Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs). It would have eliminated mandatory assessments in the 11 and 12th grade, and reduced redundant tests in the earliest grades. But while the bill has backing from the Governor – it didn’t have the votes to clear its first committee hearing.

“I know we can do it but the politics [are] very strange,” said Kerr. “We have some very strange bedfellows in this whole process. We need a political consensus in that we need Republicans and Democrats to come together and say yes we’re going to reduce the assessment level here in Colorado.”

Right now it appears enough Republicans and Democrats are coming together to say Kerr’s measure doesn’t go far enough to reduce the number of assessments in schools. The bill was originally scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education committee last week, but the sponsors pulled it.

“I think we can do more. I think we can do better,” said Senate Education Committee member Nancy Todd (D-Aurora).

Todd wants the state to adopt the federal minimum requirements for testing in schools where students would only be tested in English and Math in grades 3-8 and 11th. And she also supports changing how teachers are evaluated.

“Fifty percent of their evaluations are based on assessments and assessment results, and right now we’re in an experimental stage of assessment, and so seriously we’re going to use fifty percent of that to evaluate how a teacher is doing? So I think we need to step back and have that conversation,” said Todd.

Five years go lawmakers passed a then controversial bill to link half of a teacher’s evaluation to student assessment tests and growth in learning. Senator Mike Johnston (D- Denver) sponsored that proposal, which divided his party but had unanimous GOP support in the legislature. Johnston said teacher evaluations shouldn’t be tied into the current debate about student testing.

“I think support for the idea that teachers, and principals and schools should be accountable for their students, performance, is even stronger now than when 191 passed, so I don’t think you’ll see a rollback of that basic accountability for teachers and principals and schools,” said Johnston. “What we want to make sure is that the tests are meaningful and useful and that there are fewer.”

He believes moving to the federal minimum standards for testing wouldn’t allow for adequate measurements for Colorado high school students, or give the state enough data to adequately track schools and students.

“As a teacher and principal myself we paid very close attention to the data because we wanted to know what it is we’re doing that’s working and what’s not working. I don’t think that there’s anyone at the state or federal level who doesn’t believe that there isn’t real value to assessments, every great teacher uses assessments every day in some fashion,” said Johnston.

Governor John Hickenlooper supports current law that bases half of a teacher’s evaluation on growth in student learning. During a recent press conference he said he doesn’t want to water down that requirement or weaken assessments.

“We’re going to keep going forward, we’re not going back. You need a statewide assessment that has strong standards,” said Hickenlooper.

Meanwhile Senate Education committee member Chris Holbert (R-Parker) said he’s working on a new compromise bill that he hopes to introduce in the next few weeks. He said he understands the motivation for teacher accountability – but getting there has created too many assessments and data collection, more than what most parents want.

“So we’re trying to reign that in,” said Holbert. “They really want to make sure their sons and daughters can read and write and do arithmetic and can reason, rather than learn to take an electronic assessment.”

Holbert said the education discussion this session has been less divided compared to previous years and he’s confident that lawmakers can come to consensus. But even if the student assessment proposal does get reworked with plenty of lawmakers on board, Governor Hickenlooper wouldn’t say if he’d be willing to support significant changes

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