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Published in Print: February 6, 2002, as Ed. Dept. Hints Idaho's Novel Testing Plan Unacceptable

Ed. Dept. Hints Idaho's Novel Testing Plan Unacceptable

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Idaho's schools chief has warned legislators that an innovative testing plan approved by the state board of education would fail to meet federal testing requirements and could cost the state millions of dollars in federal aid.

Marilyn L. Howard, the state superintendent of public instruction, said Idaho could lose as much as $25 million in federal Title I money if it can't satisfy testing provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Idaho state board last month announced it had awarded a contract to Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group in Portland, Ore., to develop a system of online testing for students in grades 2-9, as well as a series of high school exams.

Marilyn L. Howard

One of the unusual features of the online reading, language arts, and math assessments, which would be administered twice a year beginning in 2002-03, is that the difficulty of test questions would vary for each student, based on how well he or she had answered previous items. A 3rd grader, for example, could answer test questions designed for students in grade 2, or even grade 6.

But a Jan. 18 memo from the U.S. Department of Education to Idaho officials cautioned that while such "level" testing is useful for instructional purposes, it "would not meet the 1994 Title I requirements."

Provisions in the ESEA reauthorization that year require states to administer mathematics and reading tests aligned with state content standards at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. According to the Education Department memo, such tests must "assess students on grade level."

Under the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001, the latest version of the ESEA, states must test every student in grades 3-8 in reading and math annually, beginning in 2005-06. Federal officials have indicated that the use of "level" testing also will not fulfill the requirements of the new law.

Last week, Allan Olson, the executive director of the Northwest Evaluation Association, pledged to work with Idaho officials to meet the Title I testing requirements within the necessary time limits. "NWEA has the capacity to develop tests that meet all of these requirements and will do so if required," he wrote in a memo to state officials. Federal officials have indicated their willingness to meet with Idaho officials to assist the state in complying with the law.

'Moving Quickly'

Idaho is one of a handful of states and jurisdictions that are currently negotiating compliance agreements with the federal Education Department, primarily because their testing systems do not meet the requirements of the 1994 law.

Under a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush last month, if those states have failed to enter into a compliance agreement with the federal government by April 8, or 90 days after the law was signed, they will lose some of their Title I funding.

A compliance agreement is a legal document negotiated between the federal department and a state education agency setting step-by-step deadlines for how the state will comply with a law. Such an agreement, published in the Federal Register, can last up to three years.

"I want to caution you that time is moving quickly," Zollie Stevenson, an education program specialist in the federal office of elementary and secondary education, warned in the Jan. 18 memo to Idaho officials.

Superintendent Howard said the state needs to submit an agreement within the next two weeks if it hopes to meet the April deadline.

Ms. Howard, a Democrat who announced her bid for re-election last week, said she would first like to see the state concentrate on putting in place grade-level testing in the three grade ranges required by the 1994 law. "Then, to the degree that capacity permits, both in finances and at the school level, [the state could] begin to look at a fuller type of testing program," she said.

But Karen McGee, the president of the Idaho board of education and its interim director for assessment and accountability, said the state should be able to move forward with its current plans, with modifications. It probably would have to add grade-level tests in at least three grades to meet the federal requirements. But she expressed confidence that the state, working with Northwest Evaluation, could do so.

"We certainly want to be in compliance," Ms. McGee said. "We have three years to do so, so we want to make certain that we're going down the right path. And if that means three normative tests in those three years, then we will meet that."

The Idaho legislature has appropriated the money to begin testing high school students this spring. But it must still approve a larger request for about $3.7 million to cover the cost of testing in grades 2-9, starting next fall.

Some of that cost could be picked up by the federal government. Under the new ESEA, Congress appropriated $380 million for fiscal 2002 to help states devise and administer their tests.

Vol. 21, Issue 21, Pages 18,21

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