staying the course

Proposal to strip student growth data from teacher evaluations goes down

Republican Sens. Vicki Marble (left) and Laura Woods originally were co-sponsors of the proposed evaluation bill but had changed their minds when it came time to vote.

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.

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.”

overruled

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.”