Overview of education reform proposal

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By Rob Witwer

In my last column, I wrote about a soon-to-be introduced bipartisan bill called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (or CAP4K). Since that time, legislation has been formally introduced in the state Senate and was assigned a bill number, SB 212.

SB 212 is supported by Gov. Bill Ritter and enjoys bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate (Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver) and the House (Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Summit County, and myself).

The purpose of the bill is to update and expand academic standards for K-12 students and also update the system of assessments (otherwise known as tests, or more specifically, CSAP) whereby we test how well kids are learning the standards.

While some have described SB 212 as “revolutionary,” I believe the word “evolutionary” is more accurate. It’s a logical next step in the progression of school reforms over the past few decades.

A bit of history is helpful. In the early 1990s, Colorado adopted a set of model content standards, which define what a child should know as he or she progresses through the K-12 system. The purpose of model content standards is to ensure that every Colorado student receives the same core instruction in key subject areas.

In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that current model standards are not working as well as they should. A telltale sign is the fact that while Colorado has among the highest per-capita rate of advanced degrees in the country, we rank near the bottom in sending our high-schoolers to college — and of those kids who go on to college, nearly a third require remedial instruction in at least one subject.

This phenomenon — known as the “Colorado Paradox” — reflects a disconnect between our secondary and postsecondary education. It also shows that our model content standards should be more relevant to the requirements of colleges and universities.

SB 212 calls for the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education to adopt new model content standards. Significantly, and for the first time, SB 212 allows Colorado colleges and universities (through the Colorado Commission on Higher Education) to have a hand in writing these standards, to ensure they properly prepare kids to succeed at the next level.

Colorado’s current model content standards were written when words like “e-mail” and “Internet” were just entering the American vocabulary. Obviously, much has changed since then. If our kids are going to compete in a 21st-century global economy, it’s time to move on from 20-century standards.

In addition to revising and expanding model content standards, SB 212 would call on the State Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education to revise assessments that test how well students are progressing with respect to the standards.

Currently, CSAP is the method of assessing such progress, and there’s a growing consensus this system can be improved. While CSAP is time-consuming, it does not yield timely information that educators can use to improve classroom instruction (tests are administered in the spring, but results are not known until the next fall).

As a public school parent myself, I do not support scrapping CSAP without a viable substitute. Assessments are not only necessary to maintain accountability, they are required by federal law. However, SB 212 paves the way for that substitute — a new generation of assessments that will be less burdensome, more timely and more relevant to classroom instruction.

SB 212 has already passed the Senate Education Committee, and will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee. As it progresses through the legislature, I will give updates on this exciting and potentially significant bipartisan reform effort.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.