Arizona could lose $340 million in federal funding because the state hasn’t followed the Every Students Succeeds Act’s rules for testing its students, Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, told the state in a recent letter.
This spring, Arizona allowed its districts a choice of offering the ACT, the SAT, or the state’s traditional test, the AzMerit test, at the high school level. ESSA allows states to offer districts the option of using a nationally-recognized college entrance exam in place of the state test, but first they must meet certain technical requirements.
For instance, states must make sure that the national recognized exam (such as the ACT or SAT) measures progress toward the state’s standards at least as well as the original state test. They also must make sure that the results of the nationally-recognized exam can be compared to the state test. And they have to provide appropriate accommodations for English-language learners and students in special education. All of this is supposed to happen before the state ever allows its districts the option of an alternate test.
Arizona “hasn’t provided evidence that it has completed any of this work,” Brogan wrote.
The department has other, big concerns about Arizona’s testing system. The state passed a law allowing its schools a choice of tests, at both the high school and elementary level. That is not kosher under ESSA, which calls for every student in the same grade to take the same test, in most cases, Brogan wrote.
What’s more, Arizona hasn’t had a single high school test for several years. Instead, students are allowed to take one of three end-of-course math and reading/language arts tests, Brogan’s letter says. The failure to offer students the same test statewide is the reason the state has been put on high-risk status.
The state needs to pick one test for high school students, Brogan says, or it may lose federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students. It’s up to Arizona to decide whether the single test is the AzMerit, the ACT, the SAT, or something else.
Kathy Hoffman, the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, said she understands the point Brogan is making. The menu of tests was put in place by the legislature before she came into office, she said.
“We are in agreement with the Department of Education,” she said in an interview. “We think that in order to have equity for all students we want to make sure we’re holding our schools accountable using the same metrics. Otherwise, if every district is giving a different test, then there’s not a way to clearly measure student success.”
Hoffman and her team sent districts a letter last week making it clear that they can’t offer a choice of tests at the elementary or high school level. Next year, she said, the state will require 9th graders to take the AzMerit test. High school sophomores and juniors may also be allowed to take a college-entrance exam, but it is unclear if the state will cover the cost.
Arizona isn’t necessarily giving up on offering a menu of tests at the high school level for accountability, Hoffman said in her letter to districts.
“In the future, it may be possible to have a menu that allows for the use of a different assessment instead of the statewide assessment, but it will take time to meet the federal requirements outlined in the letter from [the Education Department],” Hoffman wrote.
Arizona isn’t the only state that has expressed interest in allowing districts to offer a choice of tests at the high school level. Both Oklahoma and North Dakota are taking advantage of the flexibility, but both have met the law’s technical requirements and have gotten sign-off from the feds, said Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
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