After hours of testimony, two testing bills advance at Colorado Capitol

Photo: Colorado Springs mother speaks on public school testing (AP Photo)
Bethany Drosendahl, a mother of three children from Colorado Springs, Colo., makes a point during a news conference in the State Capitol, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Denver to a group calling for the revamping of the standardized testing system administered to students in the state.

During an eight-hour marathon meeting, the Colorado Senate Education Committee Thursday night passed two bills aimed at addressing a public backlash against statewide testing.

On a five to four party-line vote, Republicans on the committee green-lighted a bill that repeals Colorado’s education standards and testing system, which have been in place since 2008. The vote came after more than six hours of testimony and 47 witnesses.

SB233 sets up several committees to recommend new standards in four content areas to the State Board of Education by November of this year. The Colorado Department of Education would have to develop new tests in English, math and science for the 2016-2017 school year.

Many of the bill’s supporters attended a press conference prior to the hearing. Parents expressed worries over the privacy of their children's data when taking standardized tests.

“We will not live with the cumbersome, opaque, one-size-fits-all, data-mining, unvalidated, curriculum-driving product,” said Bethany Drosendahl. The Colorado Springs mother-of-three was a parent representative and the dissenting member on a testing task force that made recommendations to lawmakers on what tests to scale back.

Some parents had concerns that the development of the Common Core education standards was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Others had concerns about how testing is impacting learning in Colorado classrooms.

“It’s time for learning to be about what skills strengths interests and greatness that we can pull out of our children, not about how much identical and standardized memorization that we can stuff into them,” said Jillian Moster with the group Parenting Over Policy.

Democratic lawmakers said the bill amounts to “going nuclear.”

“Nearly everyone can agree we need to reduce testing, and there are several bipartisan bills that do that. This bill, though, is far too extreme,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, ranking Democratic legislator on the committee. “It’s completely unrealistic to discard years of progress and come up with completely new standards and assessments in half a year. This bill is costly and unwieldy, and I hope we can spend our time on a balanced solution that helps students and educators succeed.”

Another bill gains more support

The Senate Education Committee passed 8 to 1 another testing bill, which observers say stands a better chance of going further on the legislative road. SB257 is 49 pages long (not including six amendments passed Thursday night.)

The bill would require only one set of math and English tests in high school, and would drop social studies tests that the state implemented last year. Social studies tests administered to fourth and sevent graders last year showed just 17 percent of students had grade level understanding of social studies.

“This flood of testing, this tsunami of testing is drowning out the thrill of learning and the joy of teaching,” said Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs. “Assessments should not be the goal of learning. The word assessment should not make students, teachers and parents cringe. They should guide the next steps in learning."

He called over-testing the “axis of eval” referring one of the goals of testing – to evaluate teachers and students.

The bill would also grant districts some flexibility to use local tests instead of state standardized test and give districts three more years if they choose, before tying academic growth scores from state assessments to teacher evaluations.

It also directs the state to apply for a federal waiver to let English language learners take tests in their native language for five years instead of the three years the law currently allows.

The lone “no” vote was Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. He’s opposed to the fact that students won’t be tested in ninth grade, which he says would damage the integrity of the state’s accountability system. He believes social studies should continue to be tested. In addition, Johnston said the lack of these tests makes it harder for parents to compare schools and districts.

Both bills' next stop is the Senate Appropriations Committee.