Updated 4:15 p.m. April 27 – The State Board of Education has voted 4-3 to oppose Senate Bill 12-172, the measure that would require the board to join one of two groups that are developing multi-state achievement tests.

The board spent more than two hours on the issues, including a lengthy discussion with legislative sponsors of the bill. The exchange was friendly, but it doesn’t appear that minds were changed.

The board’s four Republicans voted to oppose the bill, while the three Democrats supported it.

Text of original Thursday story follows.

The low-grade disagreement between the State Board of Education and key legislators over the future shape of state testing is threatening to flare up as the legislature enters its final nine days.

Pencil on test paperThe spark is Senate Bill 12-172, passed 4-2 Thursday night during a Senate Education Committee meeting that was delayed for some four hours because of prolonged floor debate on the civil unions bill and a school discipline measure.

The measure would require the state board to choose between one of two groups that are developing multistate achievement tests in language arts and math.

Making such a choice would commit Colorado to using multistate tests instead of the developing its own, which is what the state board has wanted to do.

Colorado is participating in both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, but it isn’t a governing member of either. States that join a group’s governing board have a greater say in test development – but they also commit to use that group’s tests. Both are expected to be available in 2015.

The bill doesn’t specify a consortium, nor does it set a deadline for the SBE to decide.

The legislation, introduced quietly just a week ago, seemed to catch some committee members by surprise. “I didn’t realize this bill would be up today,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

After sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, explained the measure, Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “I’d like to know where the state board is on this.”

A little later in the meeting, he asked Anne Barkis, lobbyist for the board and Department of Education, to take the witness seat.

Barkis said the board hasn’t taken a position because it hadn’t met since the bill was introduced but that it was meeting Friday afternoon.

“I anticipate we will have a slightly divided board and that the majority will come out opposed to the bill,” Barkis said in very measured tones. “Generally speaking, the state board would prefer not to be told what decisions to make.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Senate Ed chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs / File photo

“It seems to me there should be some sort of collaboration between the state board and the legislature,” King said.

But Johnston, Bacon and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, all made the argument that the General Assembly is constitutionally superior to the board.

The state constitution says, “Their duties will be defined by law,” said Hudak, a former member of the board. “That means us.”

“I do see it as a function of this body,” said Johnston, noting that while the board can vote on what tests it wants, the legislature has to come up with the money to pay for them.

Money has been at the root of the testing dispute since last November, when the board requested $26 million to develop a full battery of new state tests to replace the CSAPs, which are obsolete because of new state content standards. The Hickenlooper administration requested exactly zero dollars for new tests, indicating the state could use the transitional TCAP tests for an extra year and then sign on to multi-state assessments.

The Joint Budget Committee fussed with the issue for months, with members complaining about the mixed signals from the board and the governor’s office.

Senate Education weighed in with advice to the JBC that a smaller amount of money should be spent on some specialized tests but that the state should develop its own reading and math assessments.

Coincidentally, the budget question was answered Thursday with final votes in the House and Senate on House Bill 12-1335, next year’s main state budget. The bill includes some $6 million for development of new social studies and science tests, plus Spanish language and special education tests.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster / File photo

Hudak, who last week tried to strip all testing money from the budget bill, voted for the final version Thursday. But she took five minutes at the microphone to criticize her former board colleagues.

While saying she understood the need for new science and other tests, “What troubles me is the $2.5 million to develop a whole new set of tests, the social studies tests.

“This is sort of a case of the tail wagging the dog. … That was a decision made by the State Board of Education in a discussion with the commission on higher education. We the legislature tell the state board what they must do. This is not what happened with social studies. They decided that they would like them, and now we are funding it,” Hudak told her fellow senators.

Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, sounded a similar note during the floor discussion.

While the legislature may have constitutional authority on its side, the state board could have a political ace up its sleeve. Lame-duck SBE chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, reportedly has been lobbying against the bill and could well have some influence with the Republican majority leadership in the House.

The measure’s prime sponsors are Johnston and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, plus the other three Democrats on Senate Education. But as yet the measure has no House sponsor from either party.

Senate Ed members struggled a bit when it came time to vote. Both King and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, passed when the roll first was called, and paused a moment when their turns came up again.

Heath paused again and voted yes. King finally said, “I just don’t know which side of the fence to fall off of. … I think I’ll go no today, a weak no.” Also voting no was Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Johnston, Hudak and Bacon all voted yes to send the bill to the full Senate.

The next round in the fight comes Friday at 2 p.m., when the state board convenes its regularly scheduled legislative meeting at the Department of Education, 201 E. Colfax Ave. The seven-member panel has four Republicans and three Democrats.