Standards

Colo. Governor Pushing New K-12 Standards, Tests

By Michele McNeil — March 27, 2008 4 min read
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In Colorado, where some policymakers think the education system is stuck in the 1990s, Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. wants to speed ahead with a plan to revamp the system of state standards and assessments.

The plan would inject the influence of university officials into the K-12 system in an effort to improve students’ readiness for college and the workforce.

Gov. Ritter’s “Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids,” unveiled March 19, would require both the state board of education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to redo elementary and secondary school standards, which legislators say hasn’t been done since the mid-1990s.

New or retooled tests would be created to match those standards, and students’ results in high school would be used in the college-admissions process. The two boards would jointly develop scoring criteria to measure students’ abilities.

The state school board would be charged with setting criteria for an honors-style high school diploma. The higher education panel would be directed to change its admissions policy to not only require “seat time” in specific courses, but also to focus on proficiency in subject areas where students may take nontraditional courses that don’t fit the college-admissions mold.

For students, the proposed policy change might mean they could take an engineering course to satisfy a mathematics requirement, or graduate early if they could demonstrate proficiency in all their subjects.

At a time when many states have been sidetracked by budget troubles—to which Colorado hasn’t been immune—the plan attempts to address more-fundamental issues surrounding education, according to the governor.

“This is the biggest thing we’ve done in a very long time,” Gov. Ritter, a Democrat, said in previewing the plan to other governors at February’s winter meeting in Washington of the National Governors Association. In Colorado, he said, recent education debates have focused on the number of years students spend in math and science, when “we should instead measure what they’re learning.”

Requirements in math and science became a dominant issue on the legislative agenda for education last year in Colorado, and illustrated how important local control of school districts is. Lawmakers rejected a proposal to set graduation requirements at four years of math and three years of science. Opponents had argued that the proposal could edge out other subjects, such as the arts, and take away some control from local districts. (“Colo. Rejects More Math, Science Requisites,” April 4, 2007.)

Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania are the only states that don’t have any statewide course requirements for graduation, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Iowa and Michigan are in the process of adding course requirements for future graduating classes.

Beyond Borders

In proposing his education plan this year, Gov. Ritter is trying to make good on promises he made during his election campaign in 2006, in which he pledged to increase the number of college-going students by improving standards. His advisers note that his plan still leaves curriculum design up to local districts.

Colorado leaders are particularly dissatisfied with the state’s low college-going rate. According to data provided by the governor’s office, 34 percent of new high school graduates in the class of 2003 went on to college. The college-going rate is even lower for African-American and Hispanic students.

And of those students who get to college, at least one-third need some sort of remedial classes, lawmakers point out.

Gov. Ritter has secured bipartisan support for his bill, which was introduced March 19 in the Senate. In addition, the governor is pushing to expand prekindergarten programs and create a data-collection system that would track students from preschool to the workforce. (“Better Data Tracking, Expanded Pre-K at Core of Colorado School Proposal,” Dec. 19, 2007.)

Although Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, hurdles remain. In particular, officials learned this month that the state is expected to take in $700 million less in the next five years than they had been counting on.

“The biggest issue has been around funding, and not necessarily the vision,” said Matt Gianneschi, the governor’s senior policy analyst for education. There is no price tag set for the bill, since some argue the changes could be accomplished with the same amount of resources.

Yet funding fears persist. Many Democrats, and some Republicans, are worried that the bill would create more requirements for schools but without additional state funding.

The Colorado Association of School Boards is supporting the bill, but shares those financial concerns, and will ask legislators to do a cost analysis as part of the proposal, said Jane Urschel, the organization’s deputy executive director. She gives the bill a good chance of succeeding, though, because of the bipartisan support—and because legislators have agreed to forgo pushing more years of math and science in favor of what she called this more “revolutionary” bill.

“This lifts workforce readiness to be as important as college readiness, and that’s very important,” Ms. Urschel said.

Competing interests—such as those who want the legislation to put more emphasis on the fine arts—could still threaten the plan’s success, said Rep. Robert E. Witwer, a Republican who is backing the bill.

“Most education fights at statehouses take place between interests—such as unions and school choice advocates—but these are all local, parochial debates,” Rep. Witwer said. “We can no longer afford to have local disagreements direct our education policy. We have to look beyond our borders.”

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