Testing Proves Volatile Part of State Legislative Mix
Bills aim to put on brakes
With the 2016 state legislative season fast nearing its halfway point, testing and related issues continue to fuel legislative debate, as well as tensions between lawmakers and state education officials in a number of places.
Legislators across the country had proposed nearly 600 bills as of last week that would affect the way state education departments administer and use standardized tests, up from just six such bills proposed five years ago, according to an analysis by Dan Thatcher, a researcher with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And in a particularly heated corner of the testing debate, more than 100 bills were proposed this year that would bolster the rights of parents to opt out of standardized tests or would force schools to notify parents of their rights to opt out, according to Thatcher's analysis.
Among the measures that have made it across the finish line so far:
• South Dakota passed a bill limiting testing time to just 2 percent of the school year. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, signed the bill into law last month.
• Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence—who once made testing central to his education reform agenda—in January signed a bill placing a moratorium on the state's use of test scores on teacher evaluations.
• Arizona's GOP governor signed a bill that will allow districts to choose which tests they want to use next year.
• Georgia lawmakers passed legislation, yet to be signed by that state's governor as of last week, to cut back on testing time and to limit the weight that test scores have on teacher evaluations.
"I'm a firm believer in evaluations and assessing student achievement," said Lindsey Tippins, the chairman of Georgia's Senate education committee, who successfully pushed through that state's testing legislation. "But I think sometimes the testing we had mandated on us ... took up an undue amount of instructional time with very little return on investment."
As of last week, 21 of the nation's 45 states holding legislative sessions this year were on track to finish by the end of the month.
Testing, though, hasn't been the only K-12 issue taking up lawmakers' time.
Though the final scorecard has yet to be filled in, state lawmakers grappled with a range of education governance and testing issues in the 2016 state legislative season.
At least half of the nation’s states this year were considering legislation that would decouple teacher evaluations from state tests. Utah earlier this month became one of the first states to pass a bill that would do so.
Highlights: Indiana and Alaska placed moratoriums on test scores factoring into teacher evaluations.
In reaction to parent and teacher angst about overtesting, several bills were proposed that would limit the amount of time students spend on standardized tests this year. Legislators said they wanted to assure that the preparation and administering of state assessments didn’t hamper teachers’ creativity in the classroom.
Highlight: South Dakota’s Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, signed a bill that would limit testing to 2 percent of the school year.
ESSA Task Forces
Most legislatures are waiting until the U.S. Department of Education irons out the rules under ESSA before they begin proposing and passing laws that would affect their authority over key aspects of education policy. But some already are positioning themselves to take the reins.
Highlights: Indiana and Alabama passed laws establishing task forces that will come back at the end of the year to advise them on how to address ESSA.
At least 60 bills have been proposed that would alter who in a state is in charge of setting standards and assessment. So while the task has traditionally been left to state boards of education, legislators are feeling pressure from their constituents to be more involved in the process.
Highlight: West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill—later vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin—that would have thrown out standards approved by that state’s board and removed the state from the Smarter Balanced assessment consortium.
Most states either have increased their education spending in the coming fiscal year or poised to do so. But there are plenty of wrinkles in the budget process. Illinois and Pennslvania are considering new funding formulas after legislators failed to agree on ways to distribute millions of dollars in state aid. And Kansas and Washington are under strict court orders to add millions more dollars to their education spending.
Highlights: Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Wyoming cut millions of dollars out of their budgets after coal and oil revenue fell far short of what government officials predicted.
After widespread protests, South Dakota's governor vetoed a controversial bill that would have forced transgender students to use public school bathrooms that match their sex at birth. North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill into law that included similar measures for that state.
Fiscal issues have dominated in a number of states, even as 41 states have poured more funding into their education budgets, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf ended a months-long budget stalemate with his GOP-dominated legislature last month. The resolution provides school districts with just half the $400 million funding increase Wolf originally had sought. It will distribute $6.6 billion—a 3 percent increase in statewide spending—without raising taxes.
But Illinois legislators are at odds over a new funding formula Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed.
And a handful of states heavily reliant on natural resources, including Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Wyoming, cut tens of millions of dollars out of their education budgets after coal and oil revenue dipped below projections.
Washington's legislature, under a strict state supreme court order to provide their districts with additional funding, passed a "plan for a plan" that will force it to come up with a new funding formula next year. Washington's legislature also amended its laws to allow for the expansion of charter schools after the state's supreme court ruled them unconstitutional.
Kansas' supreme court ruled this year that the legislature's education funding formula leaves poor districts with far fewer dollars than wealthier districts. The legislature passed a bill that adds $2 million to the state's funding formula. The court will decide soon whether the law is sufficient.
"The court is telling us how much money we should spend and where it should go, which is none of their business, quite frankly," said Republican Ron Highland, the Kansas House chairman. "K-12 receives over 50 percent of our budget. We're saying there is no more money, but they don't care. We have a big crisis down the road."
Highland says he has lost faith in the public school system.
Such a view doesn't surprise Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"I think part of what's going on is a kind of decades-long erosion of confidence in education professionals who in prior years, certainly before the 1980s, were more likely to be seen as neutral appliers of professional expertise," Henig said. "For a lot of reasons, they have now come to be seen as self-interested organizations looking out for adult interests instead of kids' interests."
Mandatory testing has been swept into that vortex—put on the hot seat as a result of factors that include a tenacious testing opt-out movement and a series of online technical glitches this spring that resulted in botched test scores and server meltdowns during the middle of tests.
A bill in Louisiana would allow parents at a school to vote on whether they want their children to take the state exam at all.
And in at least 25 states, legislators proposed bills that would permanently decouple test results from teacher evaluations.
Utah passed a bill earlier this month that would separate its teacher evaluations from test scores, after thousands of students opted out of the state's Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence test last year.
"If you had multiple students opting out, you weren't getting the total picture of student learning," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, the president of the Utah Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association. "Overall, it was just problematic. People want a fair, viable evaluation. To measure with test scores is anything but that."
The bill passed in Georgia reduces the weight that test scores have on teachers' evaluations to 30 percent from 50 percent, removes mandated testing for certain grade levels and subjects, and requires that tests be given as close to the end of the school year as possible.
And while many states are still waiting for the federal government to more clearly define the rules and regulations under ESSA before they design their new accountability plans, some state legislative bodies already have appointed task forces to come back with recommendations for legislation next spring.
One of those task forces was created in Indiana, part of the fallout from problems with that state's standardized-testing program, which suffered widespread technical glitches. Local superintendents alleged that the test scores from the exam were botched this year. Although students will take the exam next year, the results won't count against teachers' evaluations because of a yearlong moratorium.
The state's governor appointed a task force of teachers, administrators, parents, business officials, and legislators to study the role assessments should play in the ESSA era and what a statewide exam will look like.
"The [ESSA] law still says we have to have an assessment," said Indiana state board member Byron Ernst, who was appointed to serve on the task force last week. "We're going to look at our options as to how we can reduce the amount of time we're spending on testing while at the same time remain committed to providing parents and the education system with the information about how their students are performing."
Vol. 35, Issue 28, Pages 14, 16Published in Print: April 20, 2016, as Testing Issues Generate Heat In Legislatures