Federal

Calif. Testing Waiver Draws Civil Rights Concerns

By Michele McNeil — March 25, 2014 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s sweeping decision to let California avoid making new school accountability decisions until 2016, as the state moves to new common-core-aligned assessments, worries civil rights officials who argue that it could jeopardize everything from who gets special education services in that state to how English-learners are classified.

California’s federal waiver, announced earlier this month, comes after a months-long standoff with the U.S. Department of Education, which eventually acquiesced and agreed to let the state with the most students and the largest enrollment of English-learners ditch its state tests, for the most part. The waiver means no data on student performance will be produced for at least a year for 3 million students.

“There are practical issues that haven’t been confronted,” said Arun Ramanathan, the executive director of the Education Trust-West. “There are high-stakes classifications made about special populations, and that’s where you may see some of the biggest challenges.”

He’s especially worried about 3rd grade. “That’s the first marker of where a student might be,” Mr. Ramanathan said. With no usable test data until 2015 at the earliest, the first look at how a student might be doing may not come until 5th grade, he noted.

California was on a path to scrapping its state testing system anyway, regardless of what federal officials decided. So this waiver means that state officials won’t be running afoul of the Education Department or risking the loss of Title I money for violating the law. Later this month, the state will give the full version of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium field tests to a small proportion of students, and a shortened version to the rest of its students. The state will continue to give an exit exam in high school.

In remarks March 14 to the National Association of State Boards of Education at its conference in Arlington, Va., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the decision, saying that allowing millions of California students to participate in the field test will benefit the entire country. But he also acknowledged the decision was “probably not” the perfect solution.

NCLB Hallmark

Testing students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school is a hallmark of the No Child Left Behind Act, as is producing data and holding schools and districts accountable for student performance.

But field tests aren’t designed to easily produce data that can be used for accountability. By design, field tests are largely experimental and used, in part, to “test the tests.”

“It’s so good for our schools and for our districts and for our teachers,” said Deborah V. H. Sigman, a deputy superintendent in the California Department of Education, of the new testing waiver. “They can be focused on teaching students now.”

With its plan approved by federal officials, California won’t start making accountability determinations again until 2016. Going an entire year without data in an accountability system breaks a student-performance trend line that’s becoming even more crucial as states switch to growth models. Growth models often use two, three, or four years of student-performance data, so interrupting the trend line and essentially starting over means accountability may be delayed for more than just this one year, education policy experts have said.

What’s also irksome to education policy experts is that districts or the state could pay Smarter Balanced for more-sophisticated data analyses to glean some usable student-performance information from the field tests. What’s more, some say, Smarter Balanced already plans to provide data on how large groups of students (such as at the school level) did on specific questions. Many argue it is possible to get some useful data, especially for diagnostic purposes, from these tests.

But the state law passed last year that gave California’s testing system a makeover says that field test information can’t be used for any purpose besides helping the consortium test the test, or helping the state study assessment implementation. So there are big questions about whether the state will squelch any attempts by districts to draw useful information from the field tests.

“It is frankly astonishing that as California makes the critical transition to new, higher standards for students, the state would assess more than 3 million children and then throw away the results. We don’t test kids just to test them. We test them to see how well they are learning and how teachers can improve their craft,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the top Democrat on the House education committee. “This information cannot and should not be used for accountability purposes, but it can and should be available to help districts and schools adjust their strategies to meet student needs.”

But California state officials argue they are using the data to help the consortium develop the fully operational test for use in the spring of 2015.

“We’re not testing students, we’re testing the test,” said Ms. Sigman. “The spring of 2015—that’s the appropriate time to start talking about the performance data.”

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said the test serves one other important purpose: Since it will be administered entirely on computers, it will be a “stress test” of sorts on California’s technological capacity.

Complicated Landscape

Last year, the federal Education Department announced it would offer testing waivers for states so they would not have to double-test students with both field tests and the regular state exams during the transition to the common core. But the department, in all of its guidance documents, clearly anticipated states would do a mix of field and state tests so there could be some usable student data produced. More than a dozen states have double-testing waivers, though most are retaining their state tests for many of their students.

All of the department’s double-testing waivers, including California’s, require states to hold accountability designations steady during the coming year or years as the new common-core tests become fully operational. So schools facing sanctions under the NCLB law would continue to do so until new student-performance data could be used for new accountability ratings. California is not one of the 42 states plus the District of Columbia that have a general NCLB waiver from the federal department, so it is still bound by the federal school-accountability law.

The Education Department signaled earlier that it was open to states conducting only field tests when it granted waivers to Idaho and Montana, much smaller states that also won permission to ditch their entire state testing regimen.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Calif. Testing Waiver Draws Concern on Civil Rights Front

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