Senate takes its turn on testing, advances compromise plan

The Senate passed a compromise testing bill late Tuesday that looks a lot like a measure approved by the House on Monday evening.

The vote appears to clear the way for a testing bill to pass this session. Now it only remains for the two chambers to work out small differences between the versions and send one to the governor on Wednesday, the last day of the 2015 session. The preliminary Senate vote came after more than an hour of debate.

Supporters of the compromise argued that it’s a practical one.

Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker and a prime sponsor of the amended HB 15-1323, said, “Do you want to pass a bill that can be actually signed into law or do you want to make a statement? … Understanding the reality of this building and our governor I’m confident that this is the lowest burden of testing we can get to the governor’s desk that he will sign.

“Do you want some or none? That’s our choice,” he concluded.

Testing critics pushed an unsuccessful amendment to restore the bill to the language of another measure that originally passed the Senate 33-2. But on Tuesday night only about 10 senators rose to support that amendment on a standing vote.

Assessments need to be cut back even further to stem “the flood of testing that’s drowning students and teachers in a morass of unnecessary accountability,” argued Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs.

“We don’t have to pass anything if it’s the wrong thing,” said Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.

When a vote on the bill neared, Merrifield was conciliatory. “‘I’ve changed my mind. A little bit is better than nothing.”

Following this week’s testing debate has been confusing. Procedurally, the new plan was amended into two different bills, making them identical. The Senate voted Tuesday on House Bill 15-1323. The House on Monday gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 15-257.

The background of the debate

Lawmakers knew testing would be a top education issue this year – they created a commission in 2014 to study the issue and make recommendations for reducing assessments.

But wide divisions about what to do, both between the houses and within the parties, stalled progress on the matter for most of session. Eleven testing-related bills were introduced.

Efforts to dramatically change the testing system also faced barriers in the form of federal law and of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signals that he didn’t want a radical overhaul.

The House and Senate ultimately produced two different bills, with major differences over 9th grade testing and the extent of district flexibility. Last weekend a bipartisan group of lawmakers crafted a new proposal in an attempt to bridge the differences. That new version was transplanted Monday into both bills.

The compromise was accomplished with some leadership arm-twisting that left a few hard feelings. Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Jim Wilson, R-Salida, were installed as the House prime sponsors of SB 15-257 and led the effort to pass the compromise in the House.

Anti-testing groups and some lawmakers were left on the sidelines by the compromise deal, and they weren’t happy.

Since the compromise plan surfaced, the main points of contention have been district choice of 9th grade tests, lack of protection for districts from the administrative consequences of students boycotting tests, and over the details of the pilot testing program.

What the bill would do

Here are the key features of the bill the Senate passed.

It would reduce testing time somewhere between 30 and 50 hours, sponsors claim.

CMAS/PARCC testing in language arts and math would continue in grades 3-9. (This would require federal sign-off because grade 9 doesn’t meet federal requirements for giving the tests once in high school.)

Statewide science tests would continue to be given once at each level – elementary, middle and high school.

A college-and-career readiness test like ACT Aspire would be given to 10th grade students. (Such exams take a lot less time than the PARCC tests.)

The main ACT test would continue to be given in the 11th grade.

Districts would be required to give the 10th and 11th grade tests but students wouldn’t have to take them. (Such tests aren’t subject to federal requirements for student participation.)

Parents would have to be notified about their rights to opt students out of tests, and districts would be prohibited from punishing or discriminating against students who don’t take tests. Districts would also have to provide annual testing calendars and information about the purposes of tests.

Streamlining of school readiness and READ Act assessments to reduce overlapping tests and some tests for students who are reading at grade level.

Loosening of requirements for testing ELL student and new immigrant students in English. (This also would require federal approval.)

Allowing pilot programs through which districts could experiment with different kinds of tests to meet the requirements of state testing. Despite being a relatively small part of the bill, this issue has been a point of contention between lawmakers who want maximum district flexibility and other legislators who fear erosion of uniform statewide testing. This is an area where the two houses will need to smooth things out on Wednesday. (Pilot programs also would require federal approval.)

There would be limits on use of state test data for educator evaluation in 2014-15. Districts wouldn’t have to use state-derived data in future years if it’s not available in time to meet deadlines for finishing evaluations.

Accreditation ratings for districts and schools would be suspended for the 2015-16 school year.

The bill also requires the availability of paper tests if individual schools request them.

Bobbing behind the two big assessment bills is Senate Bill 15-056, passed 33-2 by the Senate Tuesday morning. The bill got preliminary House approval early in the evening, but no final vote. This is the bill that would partially salvage state social studies tests by giving the exams in only some schools each year. Tests currently are given annually to one grade in all schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Neither of the big bills makes any reference to social studies.

For the record: The roll of the fallen grows

As of Tuesday afternoon, Senate committees had killed three more education-related bills. The most important was House Bill 15-1389, the measure that would have reclassified revenue received from a hospital provider fee so that it doesn’t count against the state’s annual revenue limit. Without the bill the 2016 session could face some tough budget decisions. Republicans didn’t like it because it would have wiped out a couple of years of taxpayer TABOR refunds.

Also killed was House Bill 15-1339, which would have eased some financial transparency requirements currently imposed on districts.

The death of those two measures and another bill came a day after a dozen other education-related bills were killed (see story).

One measure that did advance Tuesday was Senate Bill 15-214, the study of school violence and youth mental health. The House passed it 51-13.

And the Senate gave preliminary approval to House Bill 15-1321, which would provide $10 million in additional 2015-16 funding for small rural districts.