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Proposal Would Free States From Chapter 1 Test Rules

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As Congress works on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Education Department officials and other observers are urging lawmakers to change the way Chapter 1 students and schools are assessed.

While most observers predict that the E.S.E.A.'s new Chapter 1 provisions will abandon the current heavy reliance on norm-referenced, standardized tests, Clinton Administration officials have decided they do not want to wait until the act is reauthorized, something that will probably not happen until the fall.

Even once legislation is passed, they note, more time will elapse as regulations are written and states and districts respond to them.

"If everybody began today, it's still a multiyear process,'' Thomas W. Payzant, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in an interview.

The department wants to insure that states that have begun developing new forms of assessment "keep moving forward,'' he said.

To that end, the Administration published a proposed regulation in the March 10 Federal Register that would exempt some states and districts from the current national evaluation standards for the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, which require the use of norm-referenced tests--alone or with other measures--to assess students and programs.

Interested parties have until April 25 to comment on the plan.

Under current rules, which have been in place since the 1988 reauthorization, all Chapter 1 students take norm-referenced tests. Schools whose test scores show no improvement, or a decline, must submit school-improvement plans. Those that do not improve after two years can face state intervention.

Administration officials and others have criticized that process for setting a low standard of achievement and for spurring educators to focus narrowly on improving test scores.

Even a minuscule rise in scores can exempt a school from the entire improvement process.

The new regulations would allow states to bypass current practice and use new assessment systems they have developed or are developing as part of a statewide reform effort.

Will Seek Reaction

According to the Federal Register notice, these systems must be "tied to complex skills and challenging subject matter, and use multiple measures of achievement'' rather than standardized tests.

The Secretary of Education could also grant waivers to districts that are using new forms of measurement not linked to statewide reforms, but the rules do not indicate what criteria he would use to judge their plans.

Mr. Payzant said the department plans to gather input from state and district officials through the public-comment process before laying out a set of criteria.

The regulatory proposal also does not explain how states or districts that use new assessments would gauge student improvement and identify schools for the program-improvement process. It says only that applications for exemptions from current practice would be reviewed "to insure that it would not impair [a state's or a district's] ability to account for results.''

Instead of testing all Chapter 1 students, states or districts could test only students in certain grades, which is consistent with the Administration's E.S.E.A. proposal and the House E.S.E.A. bill, HR 6.

Under HR 6, which is awaiting final floor action, states would submit plans that include proposed assessment systems tied to state performance standards.

While HR 6 indicates that students should be certified as "proficient'' or "advanced'' in meeting the state standards, it does not define those levels of achievement.

HR 6 would require schools to engage in improvement efforts if they have already been in the current process for the past two years or show no signs of improvement over a two-year period once the law takes effect. Failure to improve could lead to state action.

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