By Megan Schrader

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed two bills Wednesday morning that will reduce the time Colorado students spend taking standardized tests by an estimated 30 hours between kindergarten and graduation.

"This was the bill of the session. It was the most difficult bill, but everyone saw it as the most important," Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told reporters moments after he signed the bills at a historic Lakewood schoolhouse. "Everybody came together and said, 'all right, we are going to reduce testing but make sure we have high standards and good assessments, so we can make sure our students are achieving.'"

The bills were brought in response to an outcry from students, parents and teachers about what they called an amount of testing that ate away at traditional classroom time.

Getting the bills through the politically divided General Assembly was the culmination of the 2015 session, and Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, said the path to the governor's desk was "littered with the skeletons of other bills that fell by the wayside."

House Bill 1323 eliminates 10th, 11th and 12th grade reading and math tests known as PARCC assessments (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Students still will be required to take the ACT college entrance exam in 11th grade and will now take a preparation test for the ACT in 10th grade.

The big debate between the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate was whether ninth-grade PARCC exams should be eliminated as well. HB 1323 maintains those reading and math tests, but it reduces the number of tests students take between kindergarten and third grade as part of Colorado's READ Act and School Readiness programs.

Social studies exams that were given once to all students in elementary, middle and high school will become a random sample of schools and students under Senate Bill 56.

The testing issue created unlikely collaborators with some of the most conservative and most liberal lawmakers teaming up to strike a compromise, and ultimately not everyone was pleased.

"It's definitely a start," said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a teacher's union that called for reducing tests to federal minimums. "But it's important to remember that these two bills do relatively little to reduce testing for our fourth through eighth grade students. They still have the same amount, the same length of testing, and that really is a critical age level where we need to reduce the level of testing."

Bethany Drosendahl, a Colorado Springs parent who served on a state task force that studied the issue last summer, said the bill doesn't go far enough.

"We've basically eliminated 12th-grade testing, which pretty much would have eliminated itself," Drosendahl said, who opted her children out of taking the exams. "By this time next year there would have been so many students opting out of the 12th grade test it would have been pointless."

Dane Stickney, an inner-city Denver charter school teacher who was also on the 1202 task force, said he's pleased the bill maintains a high level of testing, although a conversation is needed about the vehicle that drives those tests -- whether it be PARCC, ACT or even creative options like lab- or project-based science and social studies assessments.

"I'm in education to make sure we are trying to level the playing field," Stickney said, who teaches a population that is 96 percent at or below the federal poverty level. "I think it's easy to ignore those students. It's easy to not ask the tough questions and engage in the tough dialogue around education gaps."

Stickney said the results of standardized tests, especially in the state's new model that measures students growth and performance, forces those conversations.

"When we get that data, that's really the only true way to monitor how we're doing and how we're serving those kids," he said.

Drosendahl supported Senate Bill 257 (one of the skeletons along the way), which would have gone to federal minimums (one test in high school). That bill was killed in the House in part because Hickenlooper indicated he would veto a bill that eliminated freshman year exams. Drosendahl said the governor should have been sent both bills and been required to make the tough decision.

"That was the bill parents wanted and we begged, and I don't use words like that typically, but we begged for them to hold that bill and say you have two bills, you decide which one you are going to sign and have him be accountable," Drosendahl said.

Hickenlooper didn't back down from his position Wednesday, saying the state needs an adequate number of assessments to measure the performance of schools. He said parents should look at the exams as a way to know they are getting their tax dollars worth at their local schools.

(c)2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)