Not quite ready

Issues get aired, but vote delayed on House testing bill

The House Education Committee took testing testimony in the Capitol's new hearing room, which has plenty of space but challenging sight lines.

The House Education Committee Monday evening delayed voting on a bill that would make modest cuts in the state’s standardized testing system, including elimination of most tests in the 11th and 12th grades.

“I am torn at this point about taking action before we attempt to resolve some of these issues,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, before asking that the bill, House Bill 15-1323, be laid over. That puts off any vote on the measure until at least next week.

That decision came after nearly three hours of testimony and committee member questions. The panel didn’t even start on the bill until after 4:30 p.m., a few afters the meeting kicked off.

A major focus of discussion was whether ninth grade students should continue taking state tests in language arts and math. Such assessments aren’t required by the federal government, and the bill proposes dropping them but allowing individual districts to test ninth graders if they want.

A parade of well-orchestrated witnesses from education reform advocacy and business groups mounted a full-court press to urge that mandatory ninth grade testing be maintained. They argued that the data from those tests is needed to maintain the state’s growth model and track students who need academic help.

On the other side, Colorado Education Association lobbyist Julie Whitacre argued that ninth grade testing isn’t necessary and that social studies tests should be dropped. The CEA also would like language added to the bill to create a three-year time-out in use of student academic growth data for teacher evaluations.

For this school year districts have the option of whether to use growth in evaluations.

Despite more than a year of rising public concern and policymaker debate about the amount of state testing, House Bill 15-1323 is the first testing reduction bill to have a full committee hearing, which was held on the 90th of the 2015 session’s 120 days.

(A more narrowly focused bill related to opting out of state tests has advanced further and won preliminary Senate approval Monday. See story here.)

Although 11 testing-related bills have been introduced this year, statehouse attention currently is focused on two measures, HB 15-1323 and Senate Bill 15-257.

The House bill, sponsored by nine of House Education’s 11 members, is considered the more limited of the two bills and is somewhat more attractive to interest groups that want minimal tinkering with state assessments.

The Senate measure is backed by seven of the nine members of Senate Education and includes provisions that would cut back on state testing but also create ways for districts to ultimately use local tests in place of state assessments. Some school district interests lean toward that bill.

The Senate bill, and a handful of other testing measures, are set for Senate Education consideration on Thursday afternoon.

The bigger question may be not whether Buckner and cosponsor Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, can reach interest-group compromise on HB 15-1323 but whether they can reach agreement with the Senate.

Neither bill would pull Colorado out of the PARCC testing system or the Common Core State Standards. Conservative Republican in both chambers want to do that, but those ideas appear to be dead in the water for this session.

Get more information on the two bills in this story, and see the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this article for links to detailed information about all 2015 testing bills.

Here are the key provisions of HB 15-1323 as it was introduced:

  • State language arts and math tests would be given only in grades three-eight and 10
  • Science and social studies would be given once each in elementary, middle, and high school
  • The state can’t require any tests in 11th and 12th grades, except for the ACT test
  • Local districts can choose to use state tests in those grades, and in ninth grade
  • The state would have seek federal approval to allow non-English tests for up to five years for ELL students
  • Paper tests must be made available at district request
  • If a READ Act early literacy test is given in first 60 days of school, the literacy section of the school readiness test doesn’t have to be given
  • K-3 students reading at grade level don’t have to be tested again in the same year
  • Paper early literacy tests must be available
  • Makes other administrative changes to school readiness tests
  • Repeals existing requirements for postsecondary and workforce readiness assessments

The bill follows many – but not all – of the recommendations of the Standards and Assessments Task Force, which studied testing last fall and made recommendations to the legislature. See this story for details on the task force report.

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.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach Indiana education officials will ultimately take — that’s up to the state board — but state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said on Monday that she’d like the state to stick with the 10th grade ISTEP test for now, a cheaper and somewhat easier option at this point, she said. It’s an unpopular move, she noted, and it would require tweaking the state’s contract with Pearson, the testing company that created this version of ISTEP. But it gives Indiana officials the needed time to work out the transition.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.