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Drumroll, Please: The Great Testing Debate of 2015 Nears Conclusion

This is it, my friends. We have entered the final phase of the Great Testing Debate of 2015 as the legislature speeds toward the finish line. We’ve been talking about testing since the session began back in January (and even before then), but it looks like we’re nearing the end of the discussion.

While we may not be able to fully pull ourselves out of the testing rut, there is now hope that we will see some forward progress. Colorado’s legislators have pulled together a hasty compromise that attempts to merge the two remaining big testing bills on the docket—HB 1323 and SB 257—by amending them to be identical to one another. Both bills passed the opposite chamber’s education committee last night.

Some of you will recall that we recently discussed the importance of such a compromise. My policy friends Ben DeGrow and Ross Izard also weighed in with an op-ed in the Colorado Springs Gazette and Greeley Tribune calling for a compromise that would both preserve accountability and lessen the testing burden.

So what does the new compromise look like? You can find a full version here, courtesy of Chalkbeat. Otherwise, the Denver Post’s Eric Gorski provides a characteristically helpful breakdown in his latest article:

  • Retain mandatory state English and math tests in ninth grade. Critics sensed an opportunity to eliminate tests that are not federally required, but others argued it would leave a hole in the state’s accountability system and provide an incomplete picture.
  • Tenth-grade PARCC tests in English and math would be replaced with a shorter test called ACT Aspire — the bill doesn’t use the name of the actual product — that prepares students for the college entrance exam required by Colorado law. That would address one criticism of the status quo: that high school students have no reason to care.
  • Any district or band of districts could propose pilot programs to develop their own tests, subject to approval by the state Department of Education. The districts would shoulder the costs. The original House Bill had a much narrower local test option. This opens it to all.
  • Schools would need to spell out procedures for opting out of state tests, and parents and students could not be penalized for doing so. Last week, the House Education Committee killed a separate bill that would “hold harmless” teachers, districts and schools for opt-outs.

In addition, the compromise would prevent state test data from being used in teacher evaluations this year, modify the way English Language Learner testing works, require paper-and-pencil options to be made available, require local education providers to create and distribute a yearly assessment calendar to parents, and place the ticking accountability clock on hold for another year.

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff.

Not everyone is happy with the compromise. Representative Paul Lundeen very rightly called out his fellow legislators for leaving such an important issue until the very last minute and then addressing it with a massive amendment that few had time to carefully review. I certainly don’t love reviewing extremely complex, fundamental amendments on a crunched schedule.

SB 257 sponsor Senator Mike Merrifield is also unhappy, as is the Colorado Education Association. CEA president Kerrie Dallman’s comments in House Education last night are illuminating:

“Passing a bill that requires no more testing than what is minimally federally required and that removes the negative consequences for teachers, schools and districts would go a long way towards showing appreciation to all of Colorado’s educators.”

A cynical Eddie would infer from this that the union is not happy that the compromise will not completely roll back critical accountability systems. That would make sense; they’re playing a very different game than most everyone else. But I’m just an innocent young policy wonk, and I ascribe no such motivations to them (wink, wink).

I know you’re just aching to hear what I think of the compromise. The answer is… undecided. I’m still in the process of carefully reviewing everything and piecing together jumbled thoughts in a process that has moved at lightning speed. But never fear, your favorite policy explorer will soon have more to say on the subject.

In the meantime, things can always change. A final vote on SB 257 has been pushed to the end of the House calendar today, and HB 1323 has yet to surface on the Senate calendar. Amendments will be offered, and it’s tough to say how the bills might change. Many of the compromise’s changes are also contingent on receiving federal waivers that may or may not be forthcoming. Still, assuming both clear third reading today and the governor signs whatever emerges as the resulting unified bill, we’ll have new testing law to chew on very soon. Generally speaking, and setting aside the ugly, rushed process, I think that’s a good thing.

For now, I’m just happy to see some movement. In the probably apocryphal words of Teddy Roosevelt:  In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.