Published Online: September 19, 2013
Published in Print: September 25, 2013, as States Mull Next Steps On Testing

Next Steps Weighed on Federal 'Double-Testing' Relief

Ed. Dept. Outlines Leeway on Assessment Regimes

The U.S. Department of Education’s announcement that it will give states the chance to suspend some or all of their current tests in mathematics and English/language arts for the 2013-14 school year could spark big changes in student testing nationally.

The offer comes with strict conditions, however, and doesn’t mean that states can skip tests altogether.

To obtain the “double-testing flexibility” unveiled earlier this week, states must give their own tests, or field tests of new common-core assessments being designed by two state consortia, to 95 percent of their students in grades 3-8 and one grade in high school, as federal rules require. Each student must take a full-length test—either their state’s current test or the new field tests—in both math and English/language arts.

States already are considering a range of responses to the offer of flexibility, including a mix of field testing and their own tests. But the announcement sparked mixed reactions among advocates, some of whom are worried that the offer could water down accountability.

The Education Department’s offer is aimed at easing an assessment burden that looms this school year, as states face juggling their own tests with the field tests being designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Relief Valve

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance for states about how they can avoid “double testing” in 2013-14, when they face juggling their own state tests with field tests of multi-state consortium assessments for the common standards.

“DOUBLE-TESTING FLEXIBILITY”

States can replace some or all of their state tests with field tests being created by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia.

To obtain “double-testing flexibility,” states must:

  • Ensure that every student in tested grades takes a full-length test in both mathematics and English/language arts.
  • Test 95 percent of their students in both subjects.
  • Report the results of state tests for students taking those tests.
  • Report participation rates overall, by subgroup, and by the relative portions of students who took state tests and field tests.
  • Show that schools meet the department’s specifications for participation in field testing, which call for students to take the full form of either their current state test or the consortium field test.
  • Require that students who are taking only some items of the field test also take their state’s full-form test in that subject.
—Note: States are not required to report the results of field tests.

“DETERMINATION FLEXIBILITY”

Schools that participate in field testing can maintain their federal accountability designations—such as whether they are “priority” turnaround schools—for one year, with accompanying interventions and supports.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

All but seven states are participating in those groups, and field-testing of those tests is projected to involve 3 million students across those states in the spring of 2014. The new guidance expands upon U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s brief, general offer of such flexibility in June.

In a Sept. 17 letter accompanying the new guidance, Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, told schools chiefs that states and districts would not have to report results of the field tests, since they are still in development. But they would still have to report the results of their state tests, as well as participation rates in both the state and field tests.

Since schools participating in the field tests wouldn’t have results for accountability, the department also offered states the chance to obtain “determination flexibility” for those schools. That would allow schools to maintain their current federal accountability designations—such as “priority” or “focus” school—for one year, along with the interventions designed to help them improve.

The guidance envisions a mix of state and field tests being used in schools. It describes a scenario, for instance, in which one classroom of students takes the field test in math and the state test in English/language arts while the rest of the students in the school take state tests in both subjects.

But department officials confirmed that the flexibility could permit a state to go as far as substituting its own state tests for field tests in those two subjects, as long as the state met the department’s other testing and participation requirements.

Advocates’ Concerns

The prospect of having little or no accountability data, however, sparked concerns among those who have pushed hard for information about how well schools are serving students, especially those most in need of support.

The Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for policies that improve schooling for disadvantaged students, had pushed for the department to require states to continue their current tests, so that the public can see how they’re doing, but to allow schools to hold their accountability designations steady and keep their interventions in place. That would enable teachers to adapt to the common core before consequences—such as the impact of negative evaluations—were linked to tests of the new standards.

Daria L. Hall, the Education Trust's director of K-12 policy, said she is disappointed that the Education Department’s guidance will allow some schools—possibly all schools in a state—to produce no test results for the public. That data is central to parents’ decisions about where to send their children to school, and to teachers’ plans for students with disabilities and English-language learners.

“Parents and members of the public need information on how students are doing,” Ms. Hall said. “To not give them that basic information for a full year is really going to be challenging, particularly for the groups we’re most concerned about. They’re being robbed of the information they deserve.”

Additionally, she said, the Education Department has created potential confusion by allowing field-testing schools to hold accountability ratings steady, but expecting schools that give the current test schoolwide to use those scores to calculate new accountability ratings.

But Education Department officials defended the new flexibility, saying it preserves accountability by requiring schools to continue with the plans they designed to help them improve.

“The key thing is that all interventions in all schools will continue for 2014-15 regardless of whether a school participates in the field tests or not. It’s not a relaxing of the interventions,” said Scott Sargrad, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives.

He acknowledged that field-test participation will mean an absence of student-achievement data in math and English/language arts, which have been used by students, parents, teachers, and others to gauge how schools and students are doing. But in the department’s view, Mr. Sargrad said, “the accountability that is critical is that the interventions are continuing to happen for all schools and all kids.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers, which had pressed for testing flexibility in this year of transition to the common standards and assessments, welcomed the department’s new guidance and agreed with Mr. Sargrad that continuation of school interventions offered sufficient accountability this year.

The CCSSO’s program director for accountability, Kirsten Taylor Carr, also said that she expects many states to keep giving their state tests to at least some significant portion of their students. It’s worthwhile for them because it preserves the continuity of their test data, and because many have revised their tests to include common-core-aligned items, so they can get valuable feedback on how students and schools are doing on those items, she said.

No Help for California

But the new guidance doesn’t help California, which plans to substitute its math and reading tests for Smarter Balanced field tests this spring. The legislature has approved a bill outlining that plan, and it is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. It drew a sharp rebuke from Secretary Duncan earlier this month because the state’s plan would have any individual student taking the field tests in only math or English/language arts, not both, as the department wishes. ("California in Testing Showdown with U.S. Department of Education," Sept. 11, 2013.)

Despite Mr. Duncan’s warning that the federal department could penalize the Golden State by withholding some of its Title I aid, California still is moving forward with that plan, said the state’s Deputy Superintendent Deborah Sigman. Giving the field tests in both subjects to all students is not an option, she said.

“The plan was designed for a reason: to make sure we could stress the system enough to allow districts and their staffs to figure out what they need to do to get ready for 2014-15,” Ms. Sigman said. “We don’t want to stress the system so much that you lose the benefit of trying out the [new tests]. We mean this to be a transition year, and that means things look different.”

Montana is another state that hopes to suspend its current statewide testing in math and English/language arts this year and use only the Smarter Balanced field tests. In a July letter to Assistant Secretary Delisle, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau outlined Montana’s plan, saying it would use its 2013 state test results to calculate “adequate yearly progress” and other data needed for federal accountability.

Like California, Montana is one of the nine states that have not obtained waivers from key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, so it must still abide by the law’s requirements, such as reporting on students’ progress toward 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Ms. Juneau said her state will apply for the new testing and accountability flexibility, and would comply with the federal guidance requiring that each student tested take a full-form test in both subjects.

‘Perfect Tryout Year’

“This is the perfect tryout year for us, since we aren’t going to make AYP anyway,” she said of the federal accountability yardstick. “It’s a great year for us to test our schools’ technology, let our teachers get a look at what this new assessment will look like. The district superintendents I talk to say, ‘Pull off the Band-Aid, and let’s get going with the new assessments.’”

Related Blog

Ms. Juneau said she’s been talking with counterparts in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Connecticut about submitting a joint application for testing and determination flexibility, since those states also are considering setting aside their own math and English/language arts tests and using Smarter Balanced field tests instead.

Vermont is proposing an entirely different approach. In 27 of its schools, it plans to give only the Smarter Balanced field tests, and each student will take both the math and English/language arts exams, said assessment director Michael Hock. In its other 260 schools, it will continue with the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, as it has done since 2005. NECAP, a collaborative project of four states in the region, is given each fall.

“Taking students away from instruction twice a year, if we do the field tests and state tests in the same schools, is a hardship for schools,” said Mr. Hock. “They have to gear up for it, move staff around, maybe borrow computers from other buildings. So this flexibility is worth getting, even if [state and field] tests are not in the same month.”

Smarter Balanced’s contract with its field-testing vendor covers the cost of administering the field test to about 20 percent of the students, enough to make sound conclusions about how well the test and its items work, Mr. Hock said. But the state doesn’t have the budget to allow more students than that to take it, even though some schools lobbied him to participate in both the field test and NECAP, he said.

“I thought people would flock to the field test so they wouldn’t have to give both,” he said. “But some of our superintendents are really interested in seeing what they can learn from both.”

Vol. 33, Issue 05, Pages 1,25

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