Testing opponents rally on eve of opt-out bill hearing

A vocal crowd of about 250 people, chanting slogans like “Enough is enough” rallied on the west side of Capitol Wednesday, calling for cuts in state testing.

The rally, organized by the Colorado Education Association and other groups, drew a crowd of  teachers, students and parents over a cold, blustery lunch hour.

The event came a day before the first committee hearing this year on any testing related bill, a measure that would ban penalties against schools or teachers if test participation drops below required levels because of opt-outs. Progress on more substantive testing bills remains stalled.

“We are here to let our Colorado legislators know that our students are more than a score,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman, and the phrase “more than a score” was repeated on signs and in chants called out by the crowd.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, touted the opt-out bill, of which she’s a sponsor. Other speakers included a parent, a teacher, a high school student, and a national anti-testing activist.

Sign seen at testing rally

The rally also was sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, FairTest (a national group), Colorado Jobs with Justice, and the Colorado PTA. Absent from the rally were any representatives of the more conservative anti-testing groups that frequent State Board of Education meetings.

Four Democratic lawmakers were behind the podium or in the crowd, but no GOP legislators were seen.

Opt-out bill will provide first airing of testing issues

Testing was expected to be the top education issue of the 2015 session, and nine testing-related bills have been introduced. (Get information and links for all those bills at the bottom of this article.) But not one has had a committee hearing.

That will change Thursday, when the Senate Education Committee is scheduled to hear Senate Bill 15-223.

The proposal would require districts, boards of cooperative educational services and charters to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts. Written district policies on opting out would have to be provided to parents.

Another sign at rally

The bill’s summary also says that neither the state nor a local school district can “penalize the student, the student’s teacher and principal, or the public school that the student attends, and the department cannot penalize the local education provider that enrolls the student, if the parent excuses the student from taking the standardized assessment.”

Current state and federal policies mandate that 95 percent of students participate in state testing. The federal government requires states to impose a penalty on districts that drop below that level. Colorado imposes a one-step drop in a district’s accreditation rating if participation drops below 95 percent on two or more tests.

While the bill doesn’t specifically reference the accreditation penalty, its no-penalties provisions presumably would prohibit that.

The bill has bipartisan support and 31 cosponsors, a significant number in a 100-member legislature. The Senate sponsors are Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and Todd. Seven of the nine Senate Education members are sponsors of the bill.

Other testing bills remain in limbo

No legislator nor education interest group is publicly in favor of more state standardized testing or even of keeping the current system.

But it has proved remarkably difficult for lawmakers to gather behind a single testing bill for a variety of reasons.

Observers cite differences and rivalries within the Senate Republican caucus and the Senate Education Committee, lack of cooperation between the GOP Senate and Democratic House, and a push by conservative Republicans to get rid of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests as reasons for the lack of progress.

A study group, the Standards and Assessments Task Force, recommended cutting back state testing to more closely match federal requirements. (See this story for details.)

A bipartisan bill containing many of the task force’s recommendations was introduced two weeks ago (see story). Gov. John Hickenlooper publicly endorsed the bill (see story), but it has failed to gain traction with lawmakers and many education interest groups, who see it as too mild.

The education reform and business groups whose leaders flanked Hickenlooper at his news conference last week would like minimum tinkering with the testing system and definitely oppose elimination of Common Core and PARCC – or any of the changes to the teacher evaluation system that are included in some testing bills.

According to the latest Capitol handicapping, all the currently introduced testing bills may be heard in committee, with Senate Republican bills ultimately killed in the House. (There are no Democratic testing bills pending in the House, although there’s talk that a copycat version of SB 15-215 may be introduced there.)

After such a bloodbath of bills, the speculation goes, a compromise bill would emerge, perhaps a version of a Holbert plan that would reduce testing and give districts some flexibility in using local instead of state tests.

Whatever scenario plays out, testing may not come to the fore until mid-April, after the Senate and House finish the 2015-16 state budget bill. Lawmakers have to adjourn by May 6, so that tight timing has prompted a few statehouse observers to start speculating about the possibility that no testing bill will pass this session.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.