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Education Funding

Duncan Offers $350 million in Stimulus Money for New Tests

By Alyson Klein — June 14, 2009 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education will use a portion of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund to help states work on developing assessments, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told governors in North Carolina tonight. They were gathered for an education symposium sponsored by the National Governors Association and the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy.

The details are still being worked out, but he said $350 million of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money set aside for states will go to the project. (The $650 million in innovation grants will still go to local districts and nonprofits.) And it sounds like Duncan is hoping that at least some states will work together on creating the tests.

Really good tests will cost more than the fill-in-the-bubble variety, Duncan told the governors, and it’ll be too much money for any one state to do on its own. So the feds are going to put up part of the funding and Duncan is hoping that states will choose to collaborate with one another.

But, in prepared remarks, he stressed that the feds won’t be the ones driving the bus:

Some people may claim that a commonly-created test is a threat to state control – but let’s remember who is in charge. You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots.

And he said he wants states to also work together on so-called formative assessments, which help teachers gauge where their kids are:

This is a growth area for the testing industry, which may worry that assessments used across multiple states will be bad for business, even if it’s the right thing for kids. However, it’s not my job to worry about their business. My job is to worry about kids...

The $350 million for assessments means that Race to the Top state grant funding is now down to $4 billion. States can either collaborate with one another or apply on their own for the grants, Duncan said. And he reiterated that the funding will be doled out in two rounds. States that lose out the first time are eligible for Round 2.

Duncan also said he wants to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act to make sure that it rewards states for raising their standards. These lines, included tonight, have become part of his NCLB stump speech.

As states come together around higher common standards, I want to flip it – and be tighter about the goals – but more flexible in how you can meet them. I trust states and districts to find the way – and I don’t trust Washington to tell you how to do it. You have the ideas, the leadership, and the ability. I’m here to support you.

And, as he has before, Duncan gave a big pat on the back to the 46 states that have pledged to consider common standards.

So let’s be clear: this effort is being led by governors and chief state schools officers. This is your work and this is your agenda. Federal law does not mandate national standards. It empowers states to decide what kids need to learn and how to measure it.

In case you haven’t already noticed, the whole Washington-Isn’t-On-Your-Back thing was a major theme of the speech. But Duncan may have stepped on that a little bit when he repeated his call for states to, pretty please, lift their charter cap.

As you might remember, Duncan is doing a round of speeches on each of the four “assurances” spelled out in the stimulus package - the ones that states must promise they’ll improve on to get a major piece of the stimulus funding. This one was obviously standards and assessments. He’s already done data systems.

Duncan also gave us a preview of the two final stops in the Assurances Tour:

He’ll be talking about turning around low performing schools—another assurance—at an event with charter school advocates next week. Interesting pick of audience there...might indicate that he is going to push for more continually failing schools to be reconstituted as charters.

And Duncan said that he will be outlining his vision for teacher and principal quality in a speech to the National Education Association in July, a gutsy move considering that the speech will more likely than not mention performance pay, a policy the union isn’t a huge fan of.

UPDATE: The Associated Press did a good story on the speech that you can read here. In an interview with AP, Duncan explained that providing resources for the tests is a good way to keep the standards movement going. Establishing standards will be relatively cheap, Duncan told AP.

But tests will be a “very heavy lift financially,” Duncan said. “Having real high standards is important, but behind that, I think in this country we have too many bad tests... If we’re going to have world-class international standards, we need to have world-class evaluations behind them.”

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