State legislators move on testing reductions, school finance

Photo: School hallway, flag

State House lawmakers advanced a bill on Friday to streamline testing, while their colleagues in the Senate passed the annual school finance bill.

The House bill would eliminate math and English tests in 11th and 12th grades, streamline literacy tests in the early grades, and give districts the option to eliminate social studies tests. Currently, social studies tests are administered 4th and 7th grades.

Rep. Jim Wilson reminded lawmakers that several years ago, the majority of them “jumped on the bandwagon that we need to hold schools accountable.”

“And all of the sudden that pendulum started swinging and it went totally out of control to the point that we thought assessments were the answer,” he said. “And now we have our community saying we need to get this back under control. What this bill does is start slowing that pendulum and saying wait a minute, ‘let’s get this under control.”

Fight over 9th grade tests

Much of Friday’s debate was consumed by a fierce fight over whether to scrap 9th grade tests.

Rep. Kevin Priola said eliminating 9th grade tests would create a “donut hole” in the state’s accountability system and do a disservice to parents.

“They want to, if their child is transitioning from middle to high school, see how did the 9th graders do last year or previous few years in the high school that I’m considering my child go to,” he said.

Other lawmakers argued that whether to have 9th grade tests should be a local decision.

“Any time we can give our local teachers, our parents, the administration the opportunity to manage their school and educate their children the best way they know how, that’s a great opportunity,” said Rep. Don Coram.

An amendment to eliminate 9th grade exams failed on a vote of 29 to 33.

Wilson argued that the bill is a reflection of the desires of a state task force set up last year to make recommendations on testing. The task force couldn’t come to an agreement on whether to eliminate 9th grade tests.

“This bill does lower the number of assessments that we are putting on our children and that’s what we were asked to do,” he said.

Helping rural districts, designing tests and more in the House bill

Under the bill, districts could let their students take tests using paper and pencil. That's expected to benefit rural districts, some of which have experienced connectivity problems using the new online tests.

Parents would also have to be notified about the testing schedule, including all district, state and other tests.

A pilot group of districts would also be allowed to create their own assessments under the bill.

In the meantime, the bill would suspend the state’s five-year clock accountability clock for the 2015-2016 school year to give districts and schools time to adjust to the new testing regimen.

Districts and schools are rated by the Colorado Department of Education on a variety of measures, including standardized test scores, graduation and drop-out rates.

Schools that are struggling to improve have five years to get back on track and some are nearing the end of that time frame. If they don’t rise from the bottom 5 percent, the state school board must take action.

Meanwhile, a final vote on another main testing bill, Senate Bill 15-257, was delayed until Monday. That bill would reduce testing in high school to one math and English test, eliminate 9th grade tests, and would streamline testing in the early grades.

School finance bill passed

Senators passed a $306 million dollar school finance bill on Friday that will pay for increases in enrollment growth and inflation.

The majority of Democrats voted against the measure. They want more money put into lowering public schools’ $880 million dollar shortfall. Currently, the bill absorbs only $25 million from the shortfall. It now moves to the House for its consideration.