The state’s academic standards and testing system drew skeptical questions from both sides of the political aisle Wednesday, providing a taste of what are expected to be prolonged discussions on those issues after the 2015 legislative session convenes on Jan. 7.

“Maybe it’s time we had an open mind on whether we’ve headed in the right direction,” suggested Sen.-elect Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, referring to education reform initiatives of the last several years and flat student performance over the last decade.

“Just suppose Colorado backs out of Common Core. What effect will that have?” asked Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

The two repeatedly asked such questions during a pre-session joint meeting of House and Senate education committee members, who gathered for a briefing on the strategic plans of the departments of education and higher education.

The annual event is typically a pro forma affair, but this is the time of year when lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staff and Capitol observers start looking for rhetorical straws in the wind that might give hints about the upcoming session.

“The discussion was very interesting,” said Sen.-elect Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who sat at the back of the hearing room and didn’t participate in the discussion.

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo
Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs / File photo

Merrifield is a retired music teacher and former House member who won a Senate seat last month. He’s known for his skepticism about almost any kind of education reform idea.

He also had questions about the Common Core State Standards, asking, “Are the assessments going to be fair in assessing Colorado standards?”

Wilson, a retired rural superintendent with a taste for Western-cut suits and cowboy boots, complained about federal testing requirements, asking, “Why do the feds have any right to tell us how we assess our students in Colorado?”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

Merrifield has been named to the 2015 Senate Education Committee. Wilson served on House Education last session and is a big advocate for small districts and for increased kindergarten funding.

Department of Education leaders gamely and politely tried to answer the two lawmakers’ questions.

Responding to Merrifield’s first question, Commissioner Robert Hammond noted that education initiatives such as new standards and educator evaluation only rolled out in districts last school year so it’s too early to gauge their impact on student achievement.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when you’re just starting,” Hammond said. “Education reform is like turning the Titanic. … If we hang with it I’m convinced we’ll see changes.”

Responding to Wilson’s question about dropping out of Common Core, Hammond said, “My answer to that is, what next? … I don’t mean to be flippant, [but] what do we change them to?”

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley responded to Wilson’s federal requirements question by noting Colorado could lose more than $300 million a year in federal funding if it didn’t meet those testing requirements.

“I think it’s a violation of constitutional rights,” Wilson groused.

The meeting, called a SMART Act hearing after the 2010 law that requires such sessions, didn’t draw a lot of legislative interest. Of the 20 current members of the House and Senate education committees, only seven showed up. Merrifield and Neville were the only two new lawmakers to attend. Several current House Education members are term-limited and won’t be returning to the Capitol.

See the slideshow CDE presented at the meeting