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March 15, 2016 7 min read
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| NEWS | High School & Beyond

SAT Test-Taking Declines in Settings Not Sponsored by States or Districts

The number of students taking the SAT in programs sponsored by their states or districts has soared by 89 percent between last March and this March, while the number opting to take it on their own, outside those programs, has dropped 22 percent in the same period.

The overall 1.5 percent increase is driven by the rise in the number of tests being given as part of the College Board’s “school day” program, which allows states or districts to give the test to all their juniors or make it available for those students. The “national” program reflects the students who take the SAT on their own. Nearly 23 percent fewer students took the SAT that way this month than did so in March 2015.

The College Board has been pushing hard to secure more statewide contracts. That’s been ACT’s modus operandi for many years, and it has a long list of statewide contracts to boast about. For the College Board, the list is small but growing.

Five states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire—currently require all juniors to take the SAT. Others, such as Idaho, offer it to all students for free but don’t require it. Some districts, such as New York City and Houston, have similar programs. Such initiatives aim to reduce college-application barriers.

As the debut of the redesigned SAT drew near, counselors and test-prep professionals speculated that administration numbers would be much lower than last year, since many counselors had advised students to wait until early kinks, if any, had been worked out. That prediction seems to have held true in the slice of the SAT world where students choose for themselves whether to take it.

Some positive reports have emerged from the frontlines of the new SAT’s maiden voyage this month, however. Kaplan Test Prep surveyed 500-plus students who took the test, and 60 percent said they found the questions straightforward. About the same proportion, though, criticized the test-section lengths as too long. Forty-eight percent said the test was about as difficult as they’d expected, 30 percent said it was tougher, and 22 percent said it was easier than they’d expected.

College Board officials have emphasized that the new SAT was designed to better reflect what students learn in high school. But if the Kaplan survey is any indicator, that might not be taking shape the way they’d hoped. When Kaplan asked students if the new SAT reflected what they have learned in high school, 16 percent said “very much so,” 56 percent said “somewhat,” 23 percent said “not too much,” and 5 percent responded “not at all.”

–Catherine Gewertz

| NEWS | Teaching Now

Over Objections, Fla. Lawmakers Renew Teacher-Bonus Program

Florida’s controversial teacher bonus-pay program will live another year.

The program, known as Best & Brightest, pays teachers bonuses based on two criteria: a ranking of at least “effective” on the state teacher-evaluation system and their own SAT or ACT scores. Lawmakers approved the program last July as part of a budget deal, allotting it $44 million.

In a budget compromise announced last week, lawmakers agreed to renew the program after days of closed-door negotiations, according to The Miami Herald. The funding has been a priority for soon-to-be House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican. The program also received an additional $5 million in the budget, for a total of $49 million.

This year, Best & Brightest paid out just over $8,000 in bonus money to each of the 5,200 teachers who qualified. But in December, the Florida Education Association filed a complaint with the federal government asserting that the program discriminates against older teachers, who might have difficulty getting their test records, as well as teachers of color, who historically do worse on standardized tests. Even many young teachers may run into problems applying if they pursued teaching through community colleges, which often don’t require the SAT or ACT.

Supporters of the program contend that it will help improve teacher recruitment and retention. A spokesperson for the state education department said via email, however, that it would be difficult to evaluate that claim “without several years of data.”

Many Democrats and Republicans in the Florida legislature have publicly opposed the program. Some lawmakers had attempted to separate the program from the state budget in order to try to vet it, but such attempts stalled, the Herald reports.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get to that point. I would rather vote it down and kill it permanently, because it’s the worst and dumbest,” said GOP Sen. Nancy Detert.

–Ross Brenneman

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Clinton Would Have to Tread Carefully In Rolling Out ‘SWAT Team’ for Schools

One of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s more notable lines about education during the March 6 debate was her vision for an “education SWAT team.” This team of teachers and principals, active and retired, would be backed by the U.S. Department of Education to go into struggling schools to provide emergency support and resources, according to the former secretary of state.

Clinton—who made the remarks in fielding a rare question on K-12 education in the 2016 debate cycle—did not pitch this idea explicitly as a federal intervention in schools. But unless she were to handle it the right way if elected, such a proposal could face political blowback.

One issue could be the new Every Student Succeeds Act and the priorities of the people who wrote it. Conservative lawmakers like Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the respective chairmen of the House and Senate education committees, have touted ESSA as a rightful return of K-12 policy power to states after a long, damaging period of Washington meddling.

Generally speaking, the new federal education law gives states more authority over several accountability policies, including school turnaround efforts. The interventions that can be used to try to help those schools are left up to districts and states. So if lawmakers, advocates, and others begin to believe that a SWAT team could involve federally backed groups swooping in to put their footprint on a district, the idea may not get far at all.

At the same time, it’s important to stress that Clinton didn’t say a SWAT team could tell districts what to do—she suggested the teams would provide support where desired. And she never indicated her support for a federal takeover of schools or districts. In fact, the Detroit school system is under state control, a situation that Clinton said she opposes.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | K-12 Parents and the Public

In State Without a Charter School Law, Nebraska Parents’ Group to Push Issue

A group of parents in Nebraska is setting its sights on getting the Nebraska legislature to approve a charter school law in one of the last eight states in the nation without such a law.

Parent Clarice Jackson, the founder of Our Children Our Schools, said other states have had charter school laws for up to 25 years, but it’s not something that Nebraska “has tapped into.”

“We know it’s not a silver bullet. It could be the right education choice for their child,” Jackson said.

Supporters of charter schools in Nebraska have had a hard sell. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, supports charter schools, even signing a proclamation as part of National School Choice Week in January. But Omaha school board members and some lawmakers have had concerns over previous legislative attempts, as have as the Nebraska school board and teachers’ union members. Last year, a Nebraska charter bill was heard but died in a legislative committee.

–Sarah Tully

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Federal Education Secretary Nominee Wins Approval From Senate Committee

Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. is one step closer to being a full-fledged cabinet official: The Senate education committee approved his nomination by a 16-6 vote last week.

The nomination will now advance to the floor of the chamber. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., voted in favor of King, even though he said they don’t agree on everything. He said he had urged President Barack Obama to officially nominate an education secretary who is “accountable” to the Senate, during the first critical year of implementation for the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The education committee held a collegial confirmation hearing for King late last month. All the Democrats on the committee voted March 9 to confirm King. But a number of Republicans voted no, including Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

King took the helm of the Education Department on an acting basis by replacing U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, who had a toxic relationship with many in Congress by the time he left office.

–Alyson Klein

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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