Civics test bill fails on final Senate roll-call vote

Civics test bill fails on final Senate roll-call vote
Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Todd Engdahl on April 5, 2016

The bill to require high school students to pass a civics test to graduate failed 17-18 on a final Senate vote Wednesday.

Twelve Democrats and six Republicans teamed up to defeat the bill.

Sponsor Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said he has no plan to attempt reconsideration of Senate Bill 16-148, something sponsors sometimes try when a vote is close.

The measure had passed on a preliminary voice vote Tuesday after opponents argued that the legislature shouldn’t add assessments just a year after it cut them back.

The bill had bipartisan sponsorship in both houses. Opposition also turned out to cross party lines, although a handful of Democratic senators took the lead criticizing the bill during Senate Education Committee consideration and floor debate.

Only one Republican, Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, spoke against the bill during the committee hearing. She said civics education needs stronger reforms than just adding one test. None of the Republicans who voted no Wednesday spoke before the roll call, nor did any of the five Democrats who supported the bill.

What’s the naturalization civics test like? Take some sample exams.

The bill was similar to the model legislation proposed by the Joe Foss Institute, an Arizona non-profit that is pushing for passage of such laws in every state.

But the bill sparked strong opposition in Colorado education circles, including among social science teachers.

While it’s rare for a bill to receive preliminary floor approval and then be defeated on a final vote, it happens once or twice a session.

Part of Tuesday’s debate was over whether Colorado needs another test.

“This flies in the face of all we did last year,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, referring to 2015’s testing reform law. “We had an exhaustive debate in both chambers.”

Educators now want lawmakers to leave testing alone so they can see the changes through, Heath argued.

“I don’t remember getting a whole bunch of phone calls from people in my district asking to add another test,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

But Hill downplayed criticisms of the bill during Tuesday’s debate, calling it just “a modest update to our current graduation standards,” which require high school students to successfully complete one civics class.

The bill would have required ninth graders take the civics portion of the federal government exam taken by immigrants who want to become naturalized citizens.

Students would have had to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions to graduate. Students would have had an unlimited number of do-overs, retaking the test through 12th grade until they passed. Test results could not be used for teacher evaluations or district and school ratings.

Democrats criticized that multiple-choice online test as too basic to truly gauge student knowledge of civics.

“I want students who think,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. “I do not want students who just regurgitate facts.”

Colorado Springs Democratic Sen. Mike Merrifield argued that lawmakers would be “creating the most high-stakes tests in Colorado” because of the tie to graduation.

But both Hill and Sen. Laura Woods, R-Thornton, said that under the proposal, principals could waive the test for individual students or even for a whole school.

“There’s so much flexibility built into this bill it cannot possibly be a burden,” Woods said.

Several Democratic amendments were defeated Tuesday. The furthest reaching was Merrifield’s proposal to eliminate 9th grade PARCC language arts and math tests and replace them with just the civics test. Democrats and Republicans combined forces against that idea, and it lost on a 9-26 vote.

Democrats who voted for the bill Wednesday were Sens. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, Mary Hodge of Brighton, Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, Mike Johnston of Denver and Linda Newell of Littleton.

Republicans voting no were Marble and Sens. Beth Martinez Humenik of Thornton, Ellen Roberts of Durango, Ray Scott of Grand Junction, Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Jack Tate of Centennial.

One other testing measure, Senate Bill 16-005, is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It proposes to eliminate 9th grade language arts and math tests and is considered unlikely to pass the full legislature.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo credit: Joye˜, Creative Commons, Flickr. Photo credit: Joy˜, Creative Commons, Flickr. 

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Todd Engdahl

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