Testing opt-out bill sparks squabble at Delaware Senate hearing

DOVER — One of the most controversial bills, one that has grass-roots support but faces stiff opposition from the Markell administration, was heard in committee Wednesday.

The site of this battleground is education, where lawmakers have clashed over standardized testing.

It’s come to a head surrounding House Bill 50, which would guarantee parents the right to opt their children out of the statewide Smarter Balanced test, an assessment put into practice this year.

Proponents have fiercely argued for the bill, claiming the test is unnecessary and puts great pressure on students.
Others, particularly officials in the Department of Education, say Smarter Balanced is needed to help measure both students and teachers.

Education officials and legislators have acknowledged there is too much testing done on students. But, while the Department of Education favors a comprehensive analysis to determine what assessments are redundant, some legislators favor a more radical solution.

The bill’s passage would serve as a strong sign of disapproval from the General Assembly to Gov. Jack Markell’s education policy. The legislation passed the House in a landslide, 36-3, last month.

With the issue involving strong passions on both sides, Wednesday’s discussion devolved into little more than a loud back-and-forth at times, similar to the House hearing back in April.

Despite an hour of often contentious debate, no committee vote was held in the meeting, as only one member was present. Committee members had not signed on in support or opposition by 7 p.m. Wednesday, leaving the bill’s fate in the hands of the body’s eight members.

Rep. John Kowalko

Rep. John Kowalko

Instead, the arguments, and the manner in which they were delivered, took center stage.

“All we’re doing is giving the opportunity for that parent, who knows their child, who knows their child well, to say, ‘I don’t think my child should take this test, my child doesn’t want to take this test, this test is not necessary, therefore I want to make sure I err on the side of what’s beneficial to my child,’” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark.

He’s the main sponsor of the bill, and he vehemently defended it in the hearing.

Despite the passionate support of some, education officials pushed back.

“In order to help deliver our children into a place where they are successful in the world, we have to measure their progress on the way,” Secretary Mark Murphy insisted. “We have to understand whether they’re on track to be successful in those middle-school years, those high-school years and beyond.

“That’s what this is about. This is about measuring progress. And we use that progress, we use that measurement, in order to understand what’s working.”

Paul Herdman, president and chief executive officer of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, an education think tank, said if a large number of students opt out, the state could lose federal funding.

However, Mike Matthews, a special education teacher and the president of the Red Clay Education Association, disagreed.

“The reason that they support the opt-out movement is not because they’re afraid of getting a poor evaluation,” he said of his fellow teachers. “They’re not afraid that their schools could potentially lose federal funding, which, by the way, has never happened and likely will never happen. They’re not afraid of that.

“They have said enough is enough, and if this is the radical action that must be taken for the state … this is the action that must be taken.”

Committee chairman Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, has proposed a resolution that would expand the responsibilities of the Department of Education in regard to studying tests, something he noted in the hearing.

“It’s an important issue, and we want what’s best for our kids — and that’s not sitting at a desk every day taking a test,” he said.

Sen. David Sokola

Sen. David Sokola

Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, who is a co-sponsor of House Bill 50, chimed in with an “Amen.”

The bill is specifically targeted at Smarter Balanced, Rep. Kowalko said.

As the hearing progressed, discussion quickly grew heated.

Sen. Sokola got into a loud argument with a public speaker. After criticizing the senator for not responding to an email, Tara Greathouse began arguing in favor of opt-out practices.

Sen. Sokola’s attempt to limit her to points strictly related to the bill drew objection, and the two engaged in a back-and-forth that rapidly shifted away from House Bill 50 and education policy as they attempted to talk over one another in rising voices.

“This is my second time in this building, and I am shocked by the leadership I’ve seen so far,” she said.

“Run for office and show us how it works,” Sen. Sokola shot back.

Many of the attendees did not speak but did show their allegiance in favor of opt-out.

Gov. Markell, a Democrat, has publicly called House Bill 50 a “bad bill.” Through a spokeswoman, he reiterated his opposition Wednesday.

“The Department of Education remains concerned about the loss of federal funding should test participation drop below required levels, and the governor continues to hear from members of the civil rights community and educational leaders throughout Delaware that testing helps identify the students and schools who need the most extra support for academic success and adequate preparation for future careers.”

Committee members could release or table the bill as soon as today.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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