Returning from its July break, the State Board of Education Wednesday elected a new chair, welcomed a new member, paid tribute to an old one and held its smoothest meeting in several months.

No major policy decisions were made, but members had a couple of thoughtful discussions on two complicated policy issues — the state’s draft application for flexibility in meeting some federal education mandates and high school graduation guidelines.

Both issues will be back on the board’s agenda for its Sept. 9-10 meeting.

The day started with the swearing-in ceremony for new 3rd District member Joyce Rankin, selected last weekend to replace chair Marcia Neal, who resigned earlier this summer.

That was quickly followed by a 7-0 vote to elect Steve Durham of the 5th District as chair through 2016. Tensions between Durham and Neal, both Republicans, were part of her decision to resign. Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder, who represents the 2nd District, remains as vice chair.

Neal made a cameo appearance later in the meeting after the board unanimously passed a resolution honoring her past service. Neal congratulated Durham and said, “‘It’s been a great time, and I thank you very much for recognizing me. … Best of luck to you all as you move ahead … I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

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The two most substantive issues on the board’s agenda were the federal flexibility application and the graduation guidelines.

Much of the flexibility discussion centered on test refusal. The board passed a resolution in February stating districts and schools shouldn’t be penalized if parental opt-outs cause testing participation to drop below the federally required 95 percent.

Department officials said the U.S. Department of Education has stressed its commitment to high test participation but isn’t giving direct answers on what it might do with policies like Colorado’s.

“Frankly, what we’ve heard from them [is] they’re trying to figure out for themselves what they’re going to do,” said Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp. “It’s almost like they’re not sure what they’re going to do.”

Significant percentages of students opted out of tests last spring; see this Chalkbeat story for details.

There are other loose ends with the flexibility application, so the board voted 7-0 to delay any action on the application until September.

The board wasn’t scheduled to act on graduation guidelines Wednesday, but Durham noted the board probably needs to vote in September so school districts will have time to develop their own graduation requirements that conform to the state’s guidelines.

The guidelines are required by a 2008 law but won’t go fully into effect until the 2020-21 school year.

The board approved a “menu” of guidelines — primarily scores on various tests — in 2013. But panels of educators studied the guidelines after that decision and recommended a larger menu of options and, in some cases, lower test scores.

Some board members are concerned about the lower scores, while others share district worries that the guidelines don’t provide enough flexibility, especially for small districts. The board declined to vote on the revised menu earlier this year.

“This is an important issue, and we’ve put it off,” Durham said. “The controversy has been around small school districts concerned that they couldn’t meet the requirements.”

Members discussed the idea of allowing individual districts to seek waivers from the guidelines.

Debora Scheffel, a Republican member from the 6th District, suggested the guidelines could be merely advisory.

“The legislature gave use a task … but not the discretion to not do the task,” Durham said. “Just allowing the districts to submit plans probably doesn’t meet the requirements of the statute.”

Durham said individual board members should come up with suggestions for what items should be on the guidelines menu.