Lawmakers battle to pass testing reform before session’s bell rings

First, thousands of students statewide refused to take their standardized tests. Then, parents mobbed the Capitol demanding that the state shift its educational priorities from testing to teaching. Last night, lawmakers brought the fight to the floor, arguing until nearly midnight over a compromise bill that would cut standardized testing by roughly 30 percent.

“This bill is a touchdown bill,” said Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, sponsor of SB 257. “We had 121 hours of standardized testing, and now we’re down to 91. We’ve eliminated some tests; we’re making sure there’s paper and pen, parental notification; and we’re holding folks harmless if they opt-out. This is a touchdown.” 

The compromise reforms would streamline early childhood reading assessments, give students for whom English is a second language three years before tracking their scores, and allow schools to offer one ACT Aspire test in 10th grade instead of PARCC tests in both 10th and 11th grades.

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Back in the Senate, SB 257 sponsor Sen. Michael Merrifield, D- Colorado Springs, was furious over the gutting of his bill.

“To say that something is better than nothing is going to mean that next year… when we say we didn’t do enough and the moms and their kids are opting-out and the schools are being punished… the Governor and those who are proposing this as a solution will say we already addressed it,” Merrifield said. “Well, we didn’t do enough. We could do more. We could do better.”

Merrifield and his supporters in the House want to see reforms that will protect teachers and schools from penalties if a lot of their students opt-out of tests. They also want to see testing cut more drastically — particularly in early high school — and give districts the opportunity to select tests other than PARCC.

The bipartisan reform caucus failed to achieve those goals after a string of amendments that narrowly failed last night.

SB 257 does include the option for districts to experiment with their own innovative assessments as long as they pay for it themselves. If a district is able to prove that their homegrown standardized tests are as rigorous as current assessments and can produce comparable data, the Board of Education could allow them to replace PARCC.

“I believe that this bill, as currently configured, is far, far, far from perfect,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R- Monument. “But, it’s something that, at the end of the day, I am willing to participate in because it turns the ship in the direction of restoring authority over assessments back to the people of Colorado. It is my perspective that this is a pathway out of PARCC, and that’s very important to me.”

Having been totally rewritten, SB 257 must return to the Senate for approval of the changes before it can be considered by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Though there is more political will in the Senate for stronger reforms such as cutting ninth-grade testing and adding opt-out immunity for schools, Hickenlooper has voiced strong opposition to those proposals.

Photo by Tessa Cheek: Sen. Merrifield rallies with parents, teachers and students at the Capitol this session in favor of rolling tests back to the federal minimums and holding schools harmless if students refuse to take assessments.