Amid calls for postponing high-stakes decisions as the common-core standards and tests are implemented, the U.S. Department of Education has put on hold an important part of federal accountability: peer review of state assessment systems.
In December, the department quietly halted the technical expert-panel reviews of state tests that have been a part of federal oversight for nearly two decades under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent version is the No Child Left Behind Act.
That leaves 15 states without federally approved state tests, until at least the spring of 2015, when the new common tests are expected to debut. That list includes California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, according to the Education Department.
In a Dec. 21 letter to chief state school officers, federal officials explained that their decision was based on two considerations: States need to focus their time on preparing for the new tests—and not on their old systems—and the federal department wants to figure out how to review the new tests to make sure they appropriately measure college and career readiness.
Because of many states’ transition to common standards and common tests, the U.S. Department of Education in December suspended federal peer review of state-assessment systems. At that time, 15 states did not have approved testing systems:
District of Columbia
Source: U.S. Department of Education
“The suspension of peer review will permit states to focus their resources on the hard work necessary to prepare for, design, and implement assessments that will provide a better measure of critical-thinking skills and complex student learning to support good teaching and improved student outcomes,” according to the letter, which was never published on the Education Department’s website. In addition, the letter made it clear that the federal department would review and have the final say on all tests, including those from the multiple-state common-testing consortia that grew out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and from any states that go their own way on assessments. In general, the department said in the letter it would review tests with the following questions in mind:
• Do they measure student knowledge and skill against college- and career-ready standards?
• Do they provide an accurate measure of student growth?
• Do they produce data that can help inform teacher and principal evaluations?
• Do they appropriately measure English-language learners and students with disabilities?
Education Department officials may also consider reviewing test-security policies, according to the letter. Prominent recent cheating scandals, including one that led to criminal indictments of educators in Atlanta, have put pressure on states and the federal government to improve security.
For its part, the Education Department was not able to answer basic questions about what the suspension of peer review means for states without approved testing systems, how long those states have been awaiting approval, how the department is reviewing the process internally, and the time frame for restarting peer review.
Federal law requires states to get their testing systems approved by federal officials, but there’s no timeline; typically, the review process can take months or even years.
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped lead the push for the common standards, said his organization did not seek the peer-review pause.
“States have to be accountable,” he said. “We should be writing better assessments, and we hope the peer-review process will reflect that. We hope [federal officials] use their authority in a smart way.”
Regardless, the federal department’s letter also signals that peer review will be an important power federal officials will use to keep tabs on states’ new testing and accountability systems.
“This is significant,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington, who is monitoring implementation of the common standards and tests. “This is perhaps the last significant lever they have on making sure the tests, and even the standards, address college and career readiness.”
In 2006, under then-Secretary Margaret Spellings, the Education Department used its peer-review power and threatened to withhold Title I administrative funds from 10 states that failed to comply with the testing parts of the NCLB law. At that time, states were having trouble proving that their tests were aligned with their own standards, or that a state provided appropriate testing accommodations for students learning English.
The federal department has used the peer-review process most aggressively to ensure tests are appropriate for students with disabilities and for English-learners. In 2007, for example, the department cracked down on 18 states that, in the judgment of peer reviewers, were giving English-learners tests that were not comparable to what their peers were taking.
The department’s most recent decision to suspend peer review came at the same time federal officials urged states to prepare more aggressively for the transition to the new, and likely harder, tests.
The December letter encouraged states, for example, to raise cutoff scores on their current tests in anticipation of the higher standards that will guide the new tests, which will cover English/language arts and math. As another example, it advised states to revise their tests to eliminate questions that don’t measure college and career readiness.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Peer Review Quietly Put on Hold for State Assessment Systems