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.

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”


Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”