- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Colorado lawmakers started work Monday on one of the thorniest problems of the annual lawmaking session - changes to the slate of standardized tests required in public schools.

Both chambers took up bills related to standardized testing Monday.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill stating that teachers and school districts shouldn’t be penalized when students opt out of statewide assessment tests. The bill won bipartisan support as an opening salvo in the debate about how to measure student performance.

“Obviously we do need measurement tools” such as tests to know if kids are learning, said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and one of the sponsors of the testing bill. But she talked about lawmakers being inundated with parent concerns about the number of required tests.

“How much enough? What do we need to change? What do we need to tweak?” Todd asked.

Current testing requirements require an overwhelming majority of students to take the standardized tests. Without that requirement, some fear schools would encourage low-performing students to skip certain exams.

Another sponsor of the opt-out bill, Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, said some schools appear to be using that requirement to pressure unwilling parents and students into taking the exams.

“Every parent is guaranteed the right to make this decision for his or her child,” Holbert said.

But the proposal brought a sharp rebuke from Democratic Sen. Michael Johnston, a former school principal in Denver and a staunch defender of Colorado current testing requirements. He accused the opt-out sponsors of “grandstanding” on testing.

“I just think it dramatically misses the target,” Johnston said of the bill.

The fiery testing debate played out in the House, too, where the Education Committee started work on a proposal from to reduce the amount of standardized tests required in public schools.

The House proposal was an attempt to salvage a testing reduction proposed last month by legislative leaders and Gov. John Hickenlooper. That proposal has languished since its introduction because of complaints that it didn’t do enough to reduce the number of standardized tests.

Saying they fear that the testing bickering will leave the Legislature with no testing bill to send the governor, the bill considered Monday would reduce tests in the early grades and in high school.

“Let’s not let our emotions overcome our common sense,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. He conceded the bill wouldn’t make all testing critics happy but said it would “at least get us moving in the right direction.”

But public reaction to the compromise testing bill indicated the testing battle will be a long and tense one.

“We need an accurate gauge of where (students) are at and where they need to be,” said Princess Mack, a volunteer parent mentor in Denver and an opponent to reducing required tests.

Business groups sent words of caution, too.

“Parents have a right to honest, objective feedback,” said Luke Raglan, president of Colorado Succeeds, a business education advocacy group.

Several more testing-related bills await hearings this week, including proposals to reduce social studies testing and to eliminate all statewide tests not required by the federal government. Another bill would dismantle a 2010 requirement that teacher evaluations rely at least 50 percent on student test scores.

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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