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Arne Duncan to California: We Can’t Approve Your Testing Plan in ‘Good Conscience’

By Michele McNeil — September 09, 2013 1 min read
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California’s plan to dump most of its state testing program as it muddles through the tricky transition to new tests aligned to the common-core standards got a major rejection letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Monday.

In a statement, Duncan said he couldn’t approve California’s plan in “good conscience.” The federal department, as required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would have to approve any major changes to a state testing system—such as not administering tests to large groups of students.

Duncan said:

A request from California to not measure the achievement of millions of students this year is not something we could approve in good conscience. Raising standards to better prepare students for college and careers is absolutely the right thing to do, but letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools' performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition. No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students' achievement, you need to know how all students are doing. If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state."

By withholding funds, Duncan likely means withholding the administrative portion of the state’s overall Title I grants the federal government provides for at-risk students. The U.S. Department of Education rarely, if ever, takes the step of withholding Title I funds that directly benefit students. Over at Curriculum Matters, my colleague Catherine Gewertz indicates this might be one situation in which the reward for California schools is greater than the risk to the state budget.

UPDATED, 9/10, 1:40 P.M.: State education chief Tom Torlakson just issued this statement:

This legislation will continue to be guided by what's right for California's children--moving forward with instruction and assessments reflecting the deeper learning and critical thinking our students need to compete and win in a changing world. Our goals for 21st century learning, and the road ahead, are clear. We won't reach them by continuing to look in the rear-view mirror with outdated tests, no matter how it sits with officials in Washington. We look forward to the opportunity to make our case to the Administration when the time comes. When we do, we hope they agree that withholding badly needed funds from California's students would be a grave and serious error.

For their part, the federal department has shown a willingness to work with states as they navigate the transition to the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by the vast majority of states.

For instance, for the 40-plus waiver states, the department has said it would accept requests from states that would only like to give one test during a transition year—such as field tests offered by the common-testing consortia, or the regular state tests—and then hold accountability designations steady for a year. But California isn’t a waiver state, and, it apparently wanted wiggle room to give no tests in math and reading to some students.

This seems to be a major setback for a state that has persistently struggled to take advantage of both money and flexibility offered by the Obama administration. It doesn’t have a waiver because of problems over teacher evaluations, and never snagged a large Race to the Top grant either. So now the question is: What does California do next?

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