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High-Stakes Game of Legislative Testing Chicken Nears Point of No Return

There’s nothing quite like the last-minute drama of a Colorado legislative session to fire up the creative juices. Last year at this time, I imagined the crazy showdown over transparency in the Student Success Act as an old gangster film.

This time around, the big looming education issue is what to do about testing. No need to rehash it all, since it’s ground I’ve covered here thoroughly in recent days.

A couple weeks ago, I pointed out that Colorado seems to be stuck in a testing rut. With less than a week to go in the legislative session and both remaining testing bills (HB 1323 and SB 257) stalled in their respective houses, it sure looks like that rut is getting even deeper.

Denver Post education reporter Eric Gorski had a great piece yesterday about how the debate is stuck in limbo, and I’m not just praising him because he included one of my Tweets in the story:

Yes, I’m calling it a game of Legislative Testing Chicken between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. Each chamber keeps postponing a final vote, apparently wanting the other side to take the heat for killing the last viable solution on the docket for this session (and maybe, for 2015). It kind of reminds me of this nerve-wracking scene from an ancient famous movie starring James Dean:

Yikes! Talk about a “high-stakes” showdown over “high-stakes” testing. There seemed to be a shred of hope that one or both parties might bail out today. Gorski got this word before he posted his piece last night:

Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, acting chair of the House Education Committee, said late Wednesday afternoon she anticipates final votes on both bills Thursday and remains optimistic in finding a bipartisan solution Hickenlooper will sign into law.

Thursday came, though, and it happened again. First the House, and then the Senate, kicked the can on their respective testing bills to Friday. This time the move came with a flattering tribute to my clever analogy:

What makes this all so frustrating is that, as Gorski notes, “The House and Senate bills actually have come to more closely resemble each other as the process moves along.” He identifies the two issues holding up a solution. One is whether or not to continue PARCC testing for ninth graders.

I mentioned that to my Dad, and he muttered something about them being “merely freshmen.” Apparently, he was referencing an old song by a group called Verve Pipe, which ironically includes these lyrics from the chorus:

For the life of me
I can not remember
What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise….

Like it or not, compromise often is the name of the game at the legislature. If neither HB 1323 nor SB 257 gets approved, then Colorado well may be stuck with the same burdensome testing system that has been widely panned.

Nearly everyone agrees that the 11th and 12th grade PARCC have to go, and that early literacy assessments ought to be streamlined, as both pieces of legislation propose. But even that wouldn’t happen if the game of chicken goes too far. So far, though, neither chamber has given the other the chance to hear its testing bill.

During times like this, you can count on my Education Policy Center friends, “two free-market think-tankers,” to provide the voice of reason. Their terrific op-ed arrived this week in both the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Greeley Tribune.

In their column, Izard and DeGrow note the other point of contention that represents a bridge too far at this point:

While both bills contain promising components, one proposal goes too far. The full-blown shift to local assessment systems proposed in SB 257 likely would result in confusion and a loss of useful statewide comparisons. However, the bill’s proposed local assessment pilot program, modeled after one recently approved in New Hampshire, could be beneficial.

Read the whole piece to get the gist of their argument for less testing and strong accountability.

The clock is ticking. Six days remain until Sine Die and the legislature wraps up its regular business. For all intents and purposes, if tomorrow the Senate doesn’t pass SB 257 and the House doesn’t pass HB 1323, then we’re right back to square one. That would be frustrating, for sure.

Let’s just hope the House and Senate both don’t go careening off the cliff.