Standards Showdown

Supporters, opponents of bill that would delay standards ready for Senate hearing, spin

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A Colorado Senate committee will hear testimony Thursday on a bill that would delay the full implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards, which are, in part, based on the Common Core Standards. Some Colorado school districts are already using workbooks and curriculum aligned to the new standards.

The growing nationwide public backlash against the implementation of the Common Core Standards has largely skipped over Colorado — but that’s about to change during the next 48 hours.

A bill that would delay the full implementation of the standards, establish a commission to study the issue and postpone the implementation of new tests aligned to the standards will be heard at 1:30 p.m., Thursday before the Colorado Senate Education Committee.

But even before lawmakers can get to work hearing official testimony on the bill, supporters and opponents will be out in full force Wednesday. Both sides of the debate are expected to lay out their position at the Capitol and Colorado Department of Education, where the State Board of Education will hold its regularly scheduled monthly meeting for two days.

The bill is sponsored by Fort Collins Republican Vicki Marble.

While observers believe the bill is likely to be killed by the Democratic-controlled education committee, the debate adds Colorado to a list of more a dozen states that has re-evaluated the adoption of the Common Core Standards. Since last year, several states, mostly Republican-controlled, have either slowed or delayed the implementation of the standards, at the request of a groundswell of parents and educators. Last month, New York’s teachers union passed a vote of no confidence in the standards and how the Empire State has implemented them.

While there has been a consistent, albeit limited, opposition against the new standards present at the Colorado State Board of Education, which officially adopted the standards in 2009 and incorporated the Common Core in 2010, supporters of the bill have been working overtime in sharing their concerns and recruiting more parents to join their cause.

The spin, now in overdrive, begins at 7:30 a.m., Wednesday, when a coalition of advocacy groups supportive of the standards is holding an information session for lawmakers about the standards, known here as the Colorado Academic Standards. The panel discussion includes Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, businessman Scott Fast, an educator from the San Luis Valley Gilbert Apodaca, and a former Department of Education and Colorado Legacy Foundation executive Nina Lopez.

The panel is sponsored by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds, Stand for Children Colorado and the Rose Community Foundation.

At 10 a.m. supporters of the bill will gather outside the Capitol to protest the standards. They believe the standards are — among other things — a dumbed-down list of empty skills that also represent a top-down one-size-does-not-fit-all education reform effort robbing school boards of constitutionally-guaranteed local control.

Supporters of bill, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and districts as disparate as Grand Junction and Cherry Creek, will then hold a press conference at 11 a.m. and take their concerns to the state board at 4 p.m.

“There are so many troubling aspects with Common Core, it’s hard to pick [just one],” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who helped author Senate Bill 14-136.

Standards and testing supporters are also expected to testify during the state board’s monthly public comment period. Similarly, their opposition to the bill at Thursday afternoon’s committee hearing is expected to be a well-orchestrated affair.

Opponents of the bill have been coordinating witnesses, perhaps more than a dozen, to speak against the bill. The four organizations sponsoring Wednesday’s information meeting are also working together and coordinating with the Colorado Education Association and Colorado Association of School Executives.

Their message will be that Colorado students can’t wait and that the state’s schedule for implementation of standards, testing and other reforms must move ahead, said one organizer.

A similar organizing effort is underway to coordinate next Monday’s currently scheduled House Education Committee hearing on HB 14-1202, which would require the State Board of Education to grant a district a waiver from statewide testing requirements if the district submits its own testing system that meets certain standards.

Lobbyists for the four groups also have been meeting with individual lawmakers in an attempt to build opposition to the bills.

While there is no shortage of national organizations opposed to the Common Core Standards including the Heritage Organization and American Principles Project, supporters of SB 14-136, or what the authors are calling the “Colorado Mom’s Bill,” said their fight is entirely grassroots.

“We have nobody backing us, we’re just concerned moms,” Kiesecker said.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”