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California Wins Prized NCLB Testing Waiver

By Michele McNeil — March 07, 2014 5 min read
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After a months-long standoff with the U.S. Department of Education, California has successfully negotiated a waiver that will allow it to largely ditch its state tests this spring in favor of giving only common-core-aligned field tests to about 3 million students.

In a letter sent to state officials today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team agreed with the state’s testing plan without any significant caveats.

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 portion of students, and a shortened version to the rest of its students. The state will continue to give an exit exam in high school.

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.

The waiver would allow California, the largest state with the largest population of English-learners, to largely deviate from this; the 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 Sigman, a deputy superintendent in the California Department of Education. “They can be focused on teaching students now.”

By going an entire year without data in an accountability system, this breaks an important 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 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. Civil rights groups are especially worried about the ramifications of this.

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 data from the field tests. What’s more, some say, Smarter Balanced plans to already provide data on how large groups of students (such as at the school level) did on specific questions. So 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 glean 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 three 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 state officials argue they are not throwing away data, but instead using it how it’s supposed to be used—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 deputy superintendent of public instruction, district, school & innovation Branch. “The spring of 2015—that’s the appropriate time to start talking about the performance data.”

Last year, the 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 and FAQ 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

It’s important to note that all of the department’s double-testing waivers, including this one for California, 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 federal 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.

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