Thursday, March 31, 2016

CO Civics Test Bill Barely Passes Committee

SB/HB-148 - the "civics bill " from Senator Owen Hill and inspired by the work of The Foss Institute - barely cleared the Senate Education Committee today on a 5-4 vote. It was a fascinating day of discussion and testimony as the committee worked through amendments and discussion. There were several stops and starts as Senator Kerr introduced numerous amendments, and Senator Merrifield tried to replace the 9th grade PARCC test with the civics test in an "amendment that should satisfy everyone." That comment was, of course, one of many moments of levity and humor during almost two hours of discussion. But, the most interesting point of the debate came very early on when bill sponsor Owen Hill basically exposed his own bill to the widest interpretation possible, implying that teachers and schools have complete "local control" and autonomy in how they administer the test. When pressed on this issue from a quizzical Senator Mike Johnston, he said he "trusts teachers and principals"to do what is right for their communities, even if that means the exam can be taken as "an open book" quiz with the teacher "projecting the quiz on screen." Basically, it can be a group test with all students passing it together. The point, he explained, was to "start the conversation" about civics and citizenship. It was a truly, uh, interesting point of discussion, and at the end of the day, none of us listening in can be really sure whether students have to take the test or not.

The new exam would be on top of a longstanding state requirement that every student “satisfactorily complete” a civics class to graduate. Disabled students wouldn’t have to take the test, and principals or superintendents could waive the requirement for students who meet all other graduation requirements and can show “extraordinary circumstances.” And test results would not be used for teacher evaluations or district and school ratings. Committee members asked Hill if the bill would allow principals or superintendents to waive the test for whole groups of students. He indicated it would, to the quiet surprise of several people in the room.

In the end, Senators Kerr, Todd, and Merrifield were joined by Committee Vice-Chair Marble in voting against the bill. Marble commented that she was unsettled by the implication of this bill that by "passing the test" students could in some way feel like they were competent in their knowledge of civics and government. She was also disappointed by bill opponents who criticized the content as trivial. Ultimately, the bill will go to the floor and then the House committee where it will be target for more amendments.

In my view, it should be enough for the legislature to turn this bill into a resolution that "strongly encourages" the incorporation of this test into the current civics class. Students should be given the opportunity to take the test and receive some sort of endorsement for doing so successfully. That promotes the idea without creating the most high stakes standardized test in the state.

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