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Alabama’s Assessment Request Could Be a Test Case for DeVos and Local Control

By Alyson Klein — June 09, 2017 2 min read
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capital Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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Since coming into office, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has talked a lot about the importance of local control, and derided the Obama administration for stepping on states’ authority to design their own K-12 systems.

Now a last-minute request from Alabama—which wants to dump the ACT Aspire assessment and instead use a series of interim tests for accountability next school year—could provide an important test case of the Trump administration’s commitment to the concept of local control. How will it balance state flexibility with the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with big bipartisan support back in 2015?

Alabama must decide by July 1 whether it wants to stick with ACT Aspire, the test specified in its current accountability plan. The state asked the department for a one-year waiver to use interim tests instead.

Alabama officials said during a state board meeting Thursday that their request was denied, according to

The state’s superintendent, Michael Sentance, said he’d had a conversation recently with Jason Botel, who is the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the department, and it was “pretty unsatisfactory. .... It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be no.”

Alabama’s board members were disheartened and suggested the state’s congressional delegation step in to help, reported.

The U.S. Department of Education however, has a different take: They haven’t given their final answer yet.

“We have received Alabama’s formal waiver request and it is being assessed,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman.

It’s not a total surprise though, that the conversation may not have gone as Alabama hoped. The Every Student Succeeds Act does indeed allow states to use a series of interim—assessment-speak for short-term—tests instead of one big overall exam for accountability purposes.

But these interim tests must meet certain quality requirements, ESSA says. For instance, the onus is on the state to show that the interim tests do indeed provide the same information as a single summative score. And the tests are supposed to go through the department’s rigorous peer review process. It would be a big deal for DeVos to waive those requirements.

And it’s not clear that the interim tests Alabama was asking to use met the law’s standards. (We’ve put out a call to the Alabama Department of Education and will update if we hear back.)

We do know, however, that ACT Aspire didn’t quite meet the federal department’s requirements for tests that are rigorous and reflect state academic standards. The department said so in a recent peer-review letter.

If the department ultimately rejects Alabama’s request, it will be a signal that—even though local control is a watch-word of the Trump administration—there are some clear limitations to that idea.