Left, right in agreement on state testing

The Colorado Statesman

Education policy can lead to strange bedfellows. Several school policy debates playing out at the legislature this year have brought an alignment between the left and the right, offering hope that there is a middle road when it comes to education reform.

The most recent example occurred Monday in the House Education Committee when Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, brought a bill that would allow certain districts to opt out of mandated tests for all but third, eighth and 10th grades, and the ACT tests in 11th grade.

House Bill 1202, however, contains a strike-below amendment that would scrap most of the bill for a study of the state-testing requirements. The measure was laid over on Monday and will likely be brought back up again in the coming week.

Despite the watered-down language, the measure itself has opened the door for opposite sides of the issue to come together and agree that students and teachers are facing too many state and federal testing requirements.

Douglas County has faced the wrath of teachers’ unions for implementing conservative policies that aim to diminish some of their power, including ending collective bargaining and establishing a merit-based pay system that is one of the most aggressive in the country.

The board also raised eyebrows by supporting a privatized system in which the county would provide vouchers to students to attend participating private schools.

But on Monday, Dougco and the Colorado Education Association appeared to be in agreement that school districts should have more flexibility when it comes to testing requirements. The teachers’ union stopped short of supporting HB 1202 as it was originally written, but it supported the amended bill to study the current standards.

“Our teachers and students are drowning in the amount of testing that is taking place…” Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, explained during the hearing. “This has all taken away from valuable instruction time and it’s leaving teachers feeling like they have no time left to teach.”

At a separate event Tuesday evening at the Denver Press Club, CEA members highlighted their struggles with testing requirements. They have launched a campaign urging against additional mandates, including a video titled, “Free Our Teachers, Value Our Students.”

The video states, “Let’s say, ‘enough.’ Cut the red tape. Stop the over-testing. And keep the good teachers doing what they do best. Free our teachers, value our students and great education will follow.”

“We are not anti-testing,” clarified Kerrie Dallman, president of CEA. “We want classroom time to teach critical skills, tests that are meaningful to the curriculum for teaching… and we want quality assessments that are aligned to the standards.”

She pointed out that 30 percent of a teacher’s time is spent on testing, which equates to about 50 class days.

Scott, a conservative who has his issues with unions, expressed similar thoughts to that of the CEA on Monday when explaining his bill to the committee.

“Right now it appears that a lot of folks are thinking and believing and seeing that a lot of testing is happening with our kids, which is good… But it appears this may be going a little bit too far,” he surmised.

Douglas County Superintendent Dr. Lizz Fagen agreed, pointing out that Dougco had suggested the bill in the first place, which is how it made its way to Scott.

“We’re spending more time assessing than we are instructing…” explained Fagen. “[Teachers] have to take a break from that quality process to insert all these state-mandated tests.”

Cherry Creek mothers have also been finding themselves agreeing with the conservative Dougco board on testing requirements, despite acknowledging that their political beliefs do not always lean to the right.

“Although many of us who identify as being progressive Democrats would like to believe that the intent… is to raise the common floor and not lower the common ceiling, there’s no evidence to support… that the tests will lead to a better educated citizenry, nor a more productive workforce,” testified Ilana Spiegel, a parent of four children in the Cherry Creek School District and a former educator who has organized the group SPEAK for Cherry Creek.

Even Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, found herself agreeing with Dougco denizens that testing should be examined. She adamantly opposed the teacher accountability reforms in 2010 with SB 191 and is a longtime friend to teachers’ unions, having served as the president of the Westminster Education Association.

But Peniston believes much of SB 191 created the problems, such as connecting teacher assessments to testing.

“It’s interesting how the pendulum swings…” she opined.

“I’m kind of blown away with this conversation… I’ve seen this proliferation of testing and I have to say, some of us saw this coming on SB 191…” Peniston continued.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, which supports the amended HB 1202, said there is an opportunity for both sides of the school reform debate to come together.

“The reforms that have swept the nation… we’re now seeing a reaction, and we are seeing the left meeting the right in many instances of this reaction,” explained Urschel.

“We saw it with HB 1202… My guess is that it’s going to pass…” she added.

Common Core

Similar odd alliances emerged during a recent debate on a Republican-sponsored bill to delay implementation of standardized testing mandates, which died in committee Feb. 13.

Senate Bill 136, sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, would have delayed all new, statewide assessments for a year. It also would have set up a task force to look at the adoption and implementation of Colorado Academic Standards in an effort to determine whether the state’s participation in so-called “Common Core” initiatives is worthwhile.

Common Core standards set guidelines for K-12 education, including requirements in math and language arts at each grade level. The state adopted the standards in 2010. Testing begins in the spring.

Critics of the standards suggest that they are expensive, onerous and take away from valuable classroom time in order to teach to the test.

Although the bill died on a Democratic party-line vote, citizens from varying political backgrounds came together to support Marble’s effort — from the far left to the far right.

Concerns range from accusations that the standards represent a federal takeover of education to worries about burdens placed on teachers and administrators, as well as the stress placed on students.

For the CEA, the issue isn’t the standards themselves, as much as the mandates placed on teachers. The CEA would like the standards to go forward, but they believe more time should be given to studying its implementation, while also supplying necessary resources.

One issue is with technology. Teachers and administrators would like to see upgrades so that schools are ready for the tests.

“A lack of resources negatively impact implementation of those standards,” explained Dallman. “It’s the perfect storm of implementation and lack of resources.”

Marble, a conservative, agreed with the CEA on the cost component, suggesting that the tests are expensive and therefore the state would have benefited from a delay.

“All it’s asking for is nothing special; no changes, just a time out,” she said of her bill during its committee hearing.

“Let’s give our Colorado teachers and parents and students time to study, and time to decide how to best move our state forward,” Marble stated at a news conference Jan. 28.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a leader in the education reform movement, acknowledged the concerns from all ends of the political spectrum. While he voted against delaying implementation, he said the discussion “will give him a lot of things to think about…”

But Johnston believes the standards should move forward in order to conduct an analysis.

“I am still a believer…” he said. “I don’t think the answer is to pause on this.”

Recording school board executive sessions

Earlier in the day on Feb. 13, the House gave approval to a measure that would require school boards to record all executive sessions, or meetings conducted with attorneys present.

Even this issue crossed political lines, with three Democrats — Reps. Dan Pabon of Denver, Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village and Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, joining Republicans to oppose House Bill 1110. It still passed by a vote of 34-31.

The issue has been tied to the education reform movement, with some Republicans alleging that the measure is the result of conservative candidates beating union-backed opponents in last November’s school board races.

Douglas County maintained a conservative slant, while Jefferson County flipped to the right after the election. Douglas County has been accused of crafting policies behind closed doors, while similarly in Jefferson County, citizens have alleged that the new school board has been working behind the scenes to oust Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

Stevenson announced recently that she would be leaving her post earlier than she originally stated, causing uproar within the community and an attack on the current school board. Stevenson said the new conservative board was impeding her work.

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, suggested that HB 1110 is an “attack on education reform,” becoming visibly angry during remarks on the floor.

“We see where the battlegrounds are now for reform in education in the state of Colorado,” added Priola. “There are entrenched interests that do not want reform… They are losing at the ballot box and they are using this and other methods to try to stop it.

“Rep. Peniston has the audacity to come down here and try to change the rules of the game…” he shouted from the well.

His Republican colleague, Rep. Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch, added, “This bill is targeted at… a few school districts in this state, and that’s unfortunate. We should not use the power of legislation… to punish, and that’s what’s happening here.

“It almost appears that this bill is an attempt by some to re-litigate the elections from last November, and that’s sad,” McNulty added.

The measure would not require any of the recorded information to be shared with the public unless a judge required it. Instead, boards would be required to share a synopsis of what was discussed in its minutes.

But Pabon, an attorney, said there is still cause for concern: “I agree with holding lawyers accountable; I’m just not sure this is the best way to do that,” he surmised.

Peniston said she began working on the bill before the November elections, imploring that her measure is only about transparency.

“The bill will give our communities more information on which to base inquiries,” she explained. “Less fishing expeditions will be needed.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com