A bill that would have dramatically changed Colorado’s teacher evaluation system was defeated Thursday on a 6-3 vote by the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 16-105, originally introduced with bipartisan sponsorship, would have allowed school districts to drop the use of student academic growth data in teacher evaluations. It also would have eliminated the annual evaluation requirement for effective and highly effective teachers.

Two Republicans who originally signed on to the bill voted no Thursday.

The requirement to base at least half of a teacher’s annual evaluation on student academic growth is a centerpiece of 2010’s landmark education evaluation law, Senate Bill 10-191.

That provision was hotly disputed then, and Thursday’s hearing demonstrated that passage of six years hasn’t fully cooled the passions.

Some lawmakers and education reform groups argue that use of student growth data gives a fuller, more objective picture of a teacher’s effectiveness than what’s provided only by a principal’s classroom observations and evaluation.

But many teachers, unions and lawmakers believe that use of student growth data is unfair, saying the tests used to generate that data are flawed and provide an incomplete picture. Critics also argue the evaluation law has placed a bureaucratic burden on districts, particularly smaller ones.

“This is not a valid method to evaluate teachers,” the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, told his fellow committee members. “We are not doing away with teacher evaluation. We are trying to change it so it is more fair and useful.”

The four hours of testimony and committee discussion resurrected arguments, beliefs and fears raised by the intense debate over SB 10-191 six years ago.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

Committee member Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, was the primary author of that bill. Six years ago, as chair of the House Education Committee, SB 16-105 champion Merrifield fought a losing battle against SB 10-191.

“This has been a great conversation. We had this debate before, but each year it gets more respectful,” Johnston said to Merrifield at one point. “Some things have stayed the same since this conversation started, and some things have changed.”

On Thursday, Johnston joined the five Republican members of Senate Education in voting against Merrifield’s bill. Two of those Republicans, conservative Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins and Laura Woods of Thornton, originally cosponsored SB 16-105.

In closing remarks Thursday both said they’d decided the bill wasn’t the right solution, although they didn’t fully articulate why they changed their minds. Some conservative interest groups like the Independence Institute opposed the bill.

Two committee Democrats — Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Nancy Todd of Aurora — voted for Merrifield’s bill. Both were in the House six years ago and voted against the original evaluation law.

Merrifield’s attempt to rein in that law this year drew close attention from interest groups. It was supported by teachers unions and the Colorado Association of School Executives, which backed SB 10-191. Merrifield’s bill was opposed by multiple business and education reform groups, and many of their representatives testified Thursday.

Evaluation law has rolled out in slow motion

The evaluation law has been put into effect in stages and isn’t yet fully implemented, partly because of the complexities of setting up the evaluation system and partly because the 2014 launch of new state tests created a gap in the state data needed to measure student academic growth.

The 2014 legislature gave school districts flexibility in using growth data for the 2014-15 school year. Districts could use 50 percent, 0 percent or anything in-between.

The 2015 legislature made a different tweak in the evaluation law. In the current school year, districts are required to base 50 percent of evaluations on student growth. But last year’s testing reform law barred districts from using state testing data to measure growth.

That testing law also says that if school districts don’t receive state test results in time to use them for evaluations districts should use local measures of growth.

It’s a common misconception that student growth is based only on data derived from state test results. The original evaluation law required that growth be determined by “multiple measures” such as state tests, local tests and other data. The law also gives districts flexibility in how they weight the different data used to make up the 50 percent. Some districts use school accreditation ratings as part of the growth measure and apply them to all teachers in a school.

The evaluation system wouldn’t work without local measures of growth. Statewide tests are given in language arts and math, but only in grades 3-9. State science and social studies tests are given only once in elementary, middle and high school. And the majority of teachers don’t teach those subjects.

Three other evaluation-related bills are pending this session:

  • House Bill 16-1016 – Provides state help to districts to develop additional measures of student growth
  • House Bill 16-1121 – Exempts nationally board certified teachers from the requirement for annual evaluations
  • House Bill 16-1099 – Repeals a provision that requires mutual consent of a teacher and a principal for placement in a school a creates additional protections for teachers who aren’t place

There’s been statehouse chatter about extending the current time-out on use of state test data in evaluations, but no concrete proposals have surfaced.