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Testing Reform Remains In A Holding Pattern At The Legislature

Bente Birkeland
Gov. John Hickenlooper touting SB 215 alongside Senate Pres. Bill Cadman, Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, and Kelly Brough, the president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. The measure is now being reworked.

On average students in Colorado classrooms take more than two-dozen assessments before they graduate, in some cases up to four times a year according to the Colorado Education Association. Critics say it actually means less time for overall learning.

A bipartisan measure aimed at reducing the number of tests Colorado public school students take remains in limbo at the state Legislature. The sponsors delayed the first hearing and don't know when it will be rescheduled – if at all.

"We are hearing loud and clear from parents, teachers, students from across Colorado that there is too much testing going on and we have to cut back," said Senator Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood)

He's a sponsor of Senate Bill 215 [.pdf] along with Senator Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs). It would have eliminated mandatory assessments in the 11 and 12th grade, and reduced redundant tests in the earliest grades. The bill has backing from the Governor – but it didn't have the votes to clear its first committee hearing.

"I know we can do it, but the politics [are] very strange," said Kerr. "We have some very strange bedfellows in this whole process. We need a political consensus in that we need Republicans and Democrats to come together and say 'yes we're going to reduce the assessment level here in Colorado.'"

"I don't think that there's anyone at the state or federal level who doesn't believe that there isn't real value to assessments, every great teacher uses assessments every day in some fashion."

Right now it appears enough Republicans and Democrats are coming together to say Kerr's measure doesn't go far enough to reduce the number of assessments in schools.

"I think we can do more," said Senate Education Committee member Nancy Todd (D-Aurora). "I think we can do better."

Todd wants the state to adopt the federal minimum requirements for testing in schools where students would only be tested in English and Math in grades 3-8 and 11; and tested for Science once in elementary, middle school and in high school. She also supports changing how teachers are evaluated.

"Fifty percent of their evaluations are based on assessments and assessment results, and right now we're in an experimental stage of assessment, and so seriously we're going to use 50 percent of that to evaluate how a teacher is doing? So I think we need to step back and have that conversation," said Todd.

Five years go lawmakers passed a then controversial bill to link half of a teacher's evaluation to student assessment tests and growth in learning. Senator Mike Johnston (D-Denver) sponsored that proposal, which divided his party but had unanimous Republican support in the legislature. For Johnston, teacher evaluations shouldn't be tied into the current debate about student testing.

"I think support for the idea that teachers, and principals and schools should be accountable for their students, performance, is even stronger now than when 191 passed, so I don't think you'll see a rollback of that basic accountability for teachers and principals and schools," said Johnston. "What we want to make sure is that the tests are meaningful and useful and that there are fewer."

He believes moving to the federal minimum standards for testing wouldn't allow for adequate measurements for Colorado high school students, or give the state enough data to adequately track schools and students.

"As a teacher and principal myself we paid very close attention to the data because we wanted to know what it is we're doing that's working and what's not working," said Johnston. "I don't think that there's anyone at the state or federal level who doesn't believe that there isn't real value to assessments, every great teacher uses assessments every day in some fashion."

Governor John Hickenlooper supports the current law that bases half of a teacher's evaluation on growth in student learning. During a recent news conference he said he doesn't want to water down that requirement or weaken assessments.

"We're going to keep going forward, we're not going back. You need a statewide assessment that has strong standards," said Hickenlooper.

Meanwhile, Senate Education committee member Chris Holbert (R-Parker) said he's working on a new compromise bill that he hopes to soon introduce. He understands the motivation for teacher accountability, but said getting there has created too many assessments and data collection – more than what most parents want.

"So we're trying to reign that in," said Holbert. "They really want to make sure their sons and daughters can read and write and do arithmetic and can reason, rather than learn to take an electronic assessment."

Holbert said the education discussion this session has been less divided compared to previous years and he's confident that lawmakers can come to consensus. But even if the student assessment proposal does get reworked with plenty of lawmakers on board, Governor Hickenlooper wouldn't say if he'd be willing to support significant changes.

Editor's Note: In an update, language around the federal minimum requirements was clarified and a notation about the science requirement was added.

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