Nebraska OKs Its First Statewide Test, While Making Standards Mandatory

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Nebraska's enactment last week of a new plan of statewide academic standards and assessments leaves Iowa as the nation's lone holdout in the movement to embrace at least some variety of uniform state testing.

Under a measure signed into law April 10 by Gov. Mike Johanns, Nebraska school districts will be required to give the same state-devised test of writing to all students in three grades, starting next spring. The move is part of a more comprehensive assessment plan hammered out this month in a legislative compromise that provides lawmakers with some of the accountability they were seeking, while leaving intact much of the local control state education officials have pushed for.

The new law, which was passed April 3 by the nonpartisan, unicameral legislature on a 39-1 vote, also calls for the existing state standards in the three testing grades to be rewritten to make them more specific.

Since the standards were completed about two years ago, districts have been required to consider them, but not to adopt them. Now, local education leaders will be required to adopt the state standards or write other ones that pass state muster for coverage and rigor.

The assessment plan phases in tests in reading, mathematics, science, and history/social studies each year till 2003, but those tests will not be the same across the state. Instead, the tests will be locally developed, with guidance from the state.

Specifically, the bill calls for testing experts, after the first round of tests in a particular subject have been given, to select the best four local tests and require the state's 584 districts either to adopt one of them or bring their own tests up to the standards of the models.

"It is very complicated, but it is a teacher-based, teacher-led kind of process, which is what we wanted," said Polly Feis, the deputy state commissioner of education.

Aiming for Buy-In

Sen. Chris Buetler, who pushed for mandatory standards, said he was generally satisfied with the law, though it may turn out not to go far enough. "Part of the compromise is letting it play out" over the next few years, he said. "We are advancing very cautiously, based on the assumption that our schools are doing very well relatively."

Under the fully implemented plan, students in the testing grades—4th, 8th, and 11th—will take no more than two state-required tests a year, one of them in writing. Results on the tests will be reported in terms of the proportion of students who met each of the standards in the different subjects.

State education officials have vehemently opposed a uniform statewide test, despite the legislature's approval of one two years ago. ("In Policy Shift, Nebraska Advances State Assessment Plan," March 25, 1998.) The law was stymied, in the meantime, by the qualms of education officials and vetoes by both Gov. Johanns, a Republican, and his Democratic predecessor, Ben Nelson, who blocked money to pay for the test.

The new legislation provides $1.4 million to craft the required tests and standards.

Commissioner of Education Douglas D. Christensen has been concerned that a uniform test would focus the curriculum too narrowly and undermine efforts to have teachers incorporate higher standards into every aspect of their teaching.

"We think that unless you have a strong foundation of class-based assessments, you can't make district- or state-based assessments very well," Mr. Christensen said. "[The new law] still forces local educators to talk their way through this process."

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 34

Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Nebraska OKs Its First Statewide Test, While Making Standards Mandatory
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