Teacher Jen Shafer of Colorado Springs, Colo., waves a placard during a rally against what protesters called "excessive" standardized testing in Colorado schools Wednesday, March 25, 2015, on the west steps of the state Capitol in Denver. 

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado 12th graders who last winter waved signs in sub-zero temperatures after opting out of their state social studies and science may soon feel vindicated – or at least that they were heard.

Two legislative bills that drop 11th and 12th grade state standardized tests are racing to the finish line.

On Monday, the third-to-the-last day of the legislative session, House lawmakers approved Senate Bill 257 on a preliminary voice vote. The bill has a final vote Tuesday. Senate Bill 257 reflects many of the recommendations of a testing task force that was charged with figuring out how to reduce the state standardized testing burden.

The journey up until this point, though, has been anything but fast. Deciding just how many and what state standardized tests Colorado school children should take has been “tough,” “stressful,” and a “minefield,” as described by various state lawmakers who have been working furiously to push a compromise testing bill through.

What the bill does

The bill would reduce high school PARCC testing to one set of math and English exams, eliminating 11th and 12th grade PARCC. State social studies tests, which were new this year, would no longer be required. The bill would streamline kindergarten and early literacy bills to avoid duplication and re-testing students who are deemed proficient. 

Under the bill, districts could let students take state standardized tests with a paper and pencil. Districts could also, at their own cost, take part in a pilot program to develop their own, comparable alternatives the state standardized tests.

“As we started this journey through this minefield, our objective was lowering the number of assessments in state of Colorado,” said Rep. James Wilson, R-Salida. “We have lowered the number of assessments.”

These students were among the 200 from Boulder High School that staged a mass walk out on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, refusing to take their 12th grade social studies and science tests. 

(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)

Not all lawmakers were happy with the final bill. Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said he was very disappointed that such a complex amendment was being debated with just a couple of full days left in the session. But, he said, “to fail to do something is unacceptable.”

He added, “for me this struggle is not over.” He called the bill a “path out of PARCC,” expressing the desire that the district pilots lead to a set of “locally-grown” tests.

Public pressure to reduce the amount of testing reached a boiling point this past year. Teachers and parents have complained about lost teaching time in the classroom, and students have complained about finding school less engaging because of the onslaught of testing. Thousands of high school students opted out of taking the new state standardized tests in social studies and science last fall.  

Amendments to the bill

Over the weekend, lawmakers and “stakeholders” crafted an amendment to SB 257 that includes:

  • Students in grades three through nine must take state standardized tests in English and math. A lot of legislative time was spent discussing whether lawmakers should scrap ninth-grade tests.
  • Instead of 10th graders taking PARCC, they would take ACT Aspire, a test that is touted to help prepare students for the ACT test they will take in 11th grade. The ACT Aspire is a significantly shorter test than the PARCC and it aligns with the ACT college entrance exam.
  • Originally the bill offered flexibility for districts to use their own tests. A smaller district pilot program is proposed and districts must still use state standardized tests but at their own costs, can draft alternative tests.
  • The amendment says test results won’t be linked to teacher evaluations in the 2015/16 if state test results aren’t back two weeks before the end of the school year.
  • Parents must be notified about their right to opt their children out of tests. The amendment prevents discrimination or negative consequences for students who don’t take state tests.
  • English language learners would have the option of taking test other than English in first five years. In their first two years of  learning English, test scores would not be counted in teacher and school evaluations.

Teachers union, others not satisfied

No one is completely happy with the bill. Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, called the current system an “oppressive testing regime.”

“Passing a bill that requires no more testing than what is minimally federally required and that removes the negative consequences for teachers, schools and districts would go a long way towards showing appreciation to all of Colorado’s educators,” she said.

She said CEA doesn’t support ninth-grade PARCC tests.

Dallman cited CEA’s new statewide polling numbers released Monday, showing 87 percent of voters want changes to the testing system, with nearly 60 percent of parents wanting ‘major changes.’ The poll was conducted by Survey USA.

Dallman also expressed concern the proposed legislation has not removed the “harsh, unnecessary penalties in the system that wrongly occur when parents exercise their rights to opt their children out of testing.” The bill would penalize teachers, schools and districts for students who do not test beginning in the 2016-17 school year.

“This is the epitome of an unjust and unfair system,” Dallman said. “If it makes sense to hold parents and students harmless, logic tells us that it is indefensible to continue to penalize teachers and districts for a parent’s decision that is outside of the educators’ control. 

Few parents testified because there was little warning that a compromise had surfaced and would be heard Monday afternoon.

Paula Noonan, a former Jefferson County Board of Education member, testified that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“Parents object to testing driving instruction rather than learning driving instruction,” she said. “Parents object to tests tied to performance evaluation, when the tests have not proven reliable. Parents know that local tests are more valuable to them, teachers and students and that those tests should take precedence because those tests affect instruction on a daily basis.”

A separate opt-out bill to prevent teachers and schools from being penalized was killed Friday by the House Education committee.

A number of education interest groups also voiced concern about the pilot testing program. Jen Walmer of Democrats for Education Reform said she’s concerned that the pilot testing program would force student in those districts to be “double-tested,” meaning they’d have to take the state tests and also the district’s newly created test. She doesn’t think struggling districts should be allowed to work on an assessment pilot.

“I have a real concern about the lack of restriction to participate,” she says.

Luke Ragland of the business group Colorado Succeeds said the pilot creates a “potential disaster collision course” when it comes to the federal funding Colorado gets because that funding requires a single state test. 

House lawmakers debated further amendments to the bill nearly up until the midnight hour, but the majority beat back attempts to prevent penalties for teachers and schools when students opt out.

A separate House testing bill that is nearly identical to Senate Bill 257 will be heard in the Senate on Tuesday.