UPDATE: The Colorado House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee killed HB-1049 today in a 4-5 vote. Four Democrats voted for the bill and five Republicans voted against it.

Third time’s a charm.

Colorado Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, is hoping the old adage holds true tomorrow in the Colorado Legislature.

That’s when the Colorado House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee will hear HB -1049, also known as the “parental rights bill.”

HB-1049 would eliminate accreditation penalties schools face when parents opt their children out of the state-mandated standardized tests once known as CSAPs but now called TCAPs. The bill, which faces an uphill battle in the legislature, would also protect parents and students from punishment from the school for not taking the test.

“When parents advocate for their children’s best interest, their children and their child’s school should not be punished for their decision,” Solano said.

Opponents of the bill, however, say it could actually harm education rather than help it.

“Schools need to be held accountable for the results of student achievement, and if parents started opting out of taking the test it would completely skew the results that a school would have,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, legislative liaison for the State Board of Education.

Committee hearing stats

  • When: Thursday upon floor adjournment
  • Where: Room 0112 in the state Capitol building, 200 E. Colfax Ave., Denver

Debates over school accountability

The definition of accountability in education reform is debated at both the state and federal levels. For  Uniting4Kids Director Angela Engel, accountability in Colorado seems to mean only making sure the test is taken, not necessarily that improvements are made.

“Colorado has made no gains, zero,” Engel said. “Education Week ranked Colorado a C, and in a study by the Bell Policy Center they looked at 24 gaps and found that Colorado had widened in 14. We are spending all this money, and do we know anything more than we did before?”

Rep. Solano has introduced bills similar to HB-1049 twice in the past. In 2008, the bill was passed in both the House and Senate but vetoed by former Gov. Bill Ritter. Solano, who is under term limits in the House, will not have a chance to push a similar bill again.

As part of the federal No Child Left Behind, schools across the country must have 95 percent of their students participate in yearly standardized tests, such as the TCAP. If fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, even if it is because parents choose to excuse their children, the school’s accreditation status is adversely affected.

“Lets say that I kicked the dog and I turn around and my brother is the one that gets punished, this is the same thing,” Rep. Solano said. “If the parent chooses to do something that is right for their kid then the school gets punished for them. It puts the school under a lot of pressure and the parents, too. It is one of the many consequences of high-stakes testing.”

School accreditation in Colorado

There are six accreditation levels in Colorado, ranging from “accredited with distinction” to “unaccredited.” Performance indicators used for the rankings include academic achievement, academic growth, academic growth gaps, postsecondary and workforce readiness, and test participation. The first four categories are scored on a point system out of 100 and the percentage of points earned gives the school its ranking.

While districts do not receive points for test participation, if districts fail to meet the 95 percent participation rate in two or more subject areas they drop one accreditation level more than they would be from points alone. This drop usually hurts low-performing or low-income schools the most, the bill’s backers say.

“The number one correlation to test score is socioeconomic status,” said Engel. “So, for those wealthy districts they don’t have to worry about parents opting out because it really doesn’t hurt them. But for districts like Greeley, Brighton, or Adams, a few kids opting out can feel like a huge deal to the principal.”

In Colorado last year, 53 schools in 14 districts did not meet the 95 percent rate of participation, according to Solano. While most of the absences were not from parental refusal, in 2010 alone 1,400 students statewide did not take the CSAP because they were opted out.

Despite the impact on school rankings, many believe the penalties need to remain in place as an incentive to keep student participation in TCAP high.

“I don’t think parents should have the option to opt out, therefore I don’t think the process by which we do the calculations should be changed, because if we change the process then we are making it easy for parents to opt out,” Berman said.

Not only can schools lose accreditation levels because of the current requirements, but with the passing of Senate Bill-191 last year, CSAP scores can now affect teacher pay and employment in Colorado as well.

Support and opposition for “parental rights”

The Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Parent Teacher Association are supporting the bill. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, however, is opposed to it, saying that assessments such as the TCAP need to be both meaningful and have consequences.

“Our position is that if you don’t assess a child you don’t know where they stand,” said Kate Horle, chamber spokeswoman. “Kids need assessment so we can make sure they are getting the education system that they need.”

The chamber does not take a position on standardized tests specifically but says it has a great interest in education bills because the Colorado education system can grow the state’s workforce.

“Unless we start getting our kids the education they need we are not going to be able to hold on to the high-tech companies that are growing our jobs,” Horle said.

Those in opposition also say that without accurate assessments the education system cannot improve.

“If you have a whole collection of third-graders in a school that can’t read, based on their assessments you know you have a school problem,” Horle said. “But if those kids aren’t assessed then you don’t know.”

Engel, though, believes the bill is not getting a fair hearing. Instead of being sent to the House Education Committee, it was sent to State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that this bill was sent to state affairs, I think it was sent there to die,” Solano said. “I don’t know how I am going to get it out of committee.”

What happens if you opt out of standardized tests

In addition to removing the accreditation penalty for schools, HB-1049 would ensure that schools cannot punish parents and students for opting out.

Currently, at the majority of schools in Colorado if you choose to excuse your child from the test you will not experience any backlash. Engel, who has been opting her children out of CSAP for more than six years, says she has never personally encountered opposition. But House Rep. Solano believes the number of parents who have experienced problems and who will be present Thursday for the committee hearing will surprise many of the other representatives.

“In Bennett, when one father opted his daughter out they threatened to retain her, to not allow her to go to the next grade, and she is a straight-A student,” Engel said. “The Bennett school district passed a policy that you had to take the test otherwise you couldn’t go to the next grade.”

On occasion, schools in Colorado have penalized students who did not take the CSAP by banning them from proms, dances, advanced classes, field trips, or athletics. A few instances have been reported of administrators temporarily expelling students or blocking their registration for refusing to take the test.

Other parents have commented that they or their children were told they were breaking the law by not taking CSAP, or TCAP, as it’s now known.

“I cant imagine it is against the law, I would imagine that it is the expected practice that you take the test,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, legislative liaison for the State Board of Education. “Just like you go to school every day, you participate in classes every day. When there are tests given in class the expectation is that you take the test, you don’t just say, ‘I don’t want to.’”