Colorado lawmakers reach compromise on reading test controversy

A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over.

chalkbeat
Volunteer Cindy Stechmeyer reads with two second graders during reading club at Lumberg Elementary in Edgewater. (Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat)

Volunteer Cindy Stechmeyer reads with two second graders during reading club at Lumberg Elementary in Edgewater. (Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Thursday to advance an amended bill that would require schools to test the state’s youngest students in English if they’re partly proficient in the language. If they’re not, a district may choose to test their reading skills in either Spanish or English.

The legislation is a compromise, reflecting an agreement between the State Board of Education and school districts with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, such as Denver Public Schools.

State Sens. Owen Hill and Tim Neville, both Republicans, opposed the bill.

For the changes to take effect, the state Senate must still sign off on the deal. And the state House of Representatives must agree to the change to a bill that chamber already has approved.

The original bill sponsored in the Senate by state Sens. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, and Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, would have allowed districts to choose which language to test students in regardless of their English skills.

A majority on the state board opposed the bill in that form and pushed for the amendment.

The debate over what language to use to catch reading deficiencies in elementary school students dates back to the creation of the READ Act.

The 2012 law requires schools to test students in kindergarten through third grade to gauge their reading skills. The goal is to make sure students are reading at grade level by third grade. Students that demonstrate a reading deficiency are put on a plan to provide them more support.

One year after the law went into effect, school districts raised concern that they were double-testing English language learners in Spanish and English. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency.

After the opinion was released, the state board changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But in 2016, a reconfigured state board added a new provision. If schools were going to test students in Spanish, they must also do it in English.

The board’s decision at the time was met with opposition led by by Denver school officials.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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