Testing 1, 2, 3, 4... 

Legislators say kids take too many exams but can't agree how to fix the problem

State Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, is matter-of-fact when it comes to the slew of testing bills in the legislature.

"My bill is best," he says. "However, my bill is going to die."

Senate Bill 73 is just one of many doomed bills this session that aim to reduce the impact and quantity of standardized testing in the state's K-12 classrooms. The nonprofit educational news organization Chalkbeat Colorado recently put the bill count at 11 — and that's not including the failed bid by some Republican lawmakers to defund standardized testing in the state budget bill.

Merrifield is now co-sponsor bipartisan Senate Bill 257, which is based on SB73. He says he likes a lot of things about the bill, which would reduce testing and put a hold on a law that requires teacher evaluations to be tied to student test scores. But he says that the bill doesn't go quite as far on certain issues as he would like. For instance, he'd like to see SB257 include a requirement that teachers work with officials to create a new teacher evaluation system that doesn't consider student test scores. Whatever happens, he expects the bill to pass out of the Senate.

Of course, from there, who knows. The bill has competition, in House Bill 1323 (which was recently delayed). And if either one of them were to actually pass the legislature, it still would need to get past Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is tepid on such reforms.

The issue of testing has become a strange free-for-all in Colorado. Some Democrats, like Merrifield, a retired public-school music teacher, want to see it reduced because they believe it is ineffective and that judging teachers on students' test scores isn't fair. Many studies support those claims, and the viewpoint has the backing of some powerful interests, such as the state's major teachers union, the Colorado Education Association (CEA). Likewise, there are Republicans, including SB257 co-sponsor Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who want to see testing reduced; they often cite excessive government intrusion as their rationale.

Still, most legislators are also responding to a public outcry. In November, hundreds of Boulder high school students staged a mass walkout of their standardized social studies and science tests — and they were just a small percentage of the 5,000-plus Colorado 12th-graders who opted out of the test.

In March, dozens of students took to the state Capitol steps to protest The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, the state's new standardized exam, which is its answer to federally mandated requirements. And a 2014 CEA opinion survey of the voting public and CEA educator members found that 63 percent wanted less testing. As Merrifield puts it, "The amount of parental email and pressure I've been getting — it's the most dominant issue in my email."

But there are also members of both parties who support testing, including many Democrats. It was, after all, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who sponsored Senate Bill 191 in 2010 — the bill that required Colorado to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.

Perhaps more than any other issue, testing legislation is creating unlikely alliances.

"This isn't only strange bedfellows," Merrifield says. "It's a strange bed."

Meanwhile, teachers and school district administrators are watching the legislative battle with keen interest. John Fogarty, assistant superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, says the district's school board passed a resolution supporting a reduction in testing. That's despite the fact that the district generally gets high scores on such tests.

Fogarty says he's concerned that even if some testing is eliminated by the legislature, the PARCC will still be in place. Compared to Colorado's old standardized tests, the PARCC is a much longer assessment, and since it's done on computers, the districts' computer labs are taken over for days on end. That means senior high school students who want to prepare papers have to go elsewhere. It also means that teachers lose time in the classroom.

"Something's got to give," he says. "We need to have more instructional time."

The nation's most important education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was signed into law in 1965. But it underwent major changes that required extensive standardized testing in 2001, when it was renamed the No Child Left Behind Act. At the time, it was heralded as a way to equalize education in America, ensuring that children were given the same quality of schooling regardless of their backgrounds.

Testing provided a way to judge schools and districts, and then create improvement plans or penalties for those that didn't measure up. Since then, standardized testing has also become viewed as a way to judge individual teachers. Those whose students do well on tests may be rewarded; others may be penalized or fired.

Since then, states like Colorado have expanded standardized testing beyond the federal minimums. Colorado, for instance, tests young kids several times a year in reading, requires social studies tests throughout a child's education, and has standardized tests for three high-school grade levels instead of the federally required one.

Districts have also latched on to the testing craze. Kerrie Dallman, the CEA's president and a high school social studies teacher, says some Colorado districts now have as many as 60 standardized assessments. That's on top of the regular tests that teachers give. Dallman says teachers now report to the CEA that they are spending upward of 30 percent of their teaching time either preparing for or administering tests.

"We would like to see testing capped at 5 percent of instructional time," Dallman says.

The CEA would also like to see other changes, like not tying teacher evaluations to test results — or, at the very least, not penalizing schools, teachers and districts when kids "opt out" of standardized tests. Dallman notes that it's often the highest-performing kids who don't take the tests, which can skew scores negatively. She'd rather see teachers judged through other means, like peer reviews.

It's not likely that the CEA is going to get everything it wants in this Colorado legislative session. For one thing, reducing testing to 5 percent of instructional time would require changes on the federal level — something that is actually also being looked at right now, as Congress reviews the ESEA.

But there could be some major changes on the state level. Merrifield says he's still hoping a bill will get through that reduces Colorado's testing requirements to the federal minimums, and puts a hold on teacher evaluations tied to testing outcomes. But he's not sure if that's possible, given that "both caucuses are torn about how to address [testing]."


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