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Duncan Unveils Details on Race to the Top Aid

By Alyson Klein — June 15, 2009 5 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s game plan for his Race to the Top fund—the most talked-about portion of the economic-stimulus package for education—is coming into clearer focus, with his announcement that $350 million of the $4.35 billion fund will be used to help states develop common academic assessments.

Yesterday’s announcement, made a day before the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a time line for the doling out the rest of the money, will help bolster an effort led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to create common standards. Forty-six states have joined in the project.

Mr. Duncan told the nation’s governors at a meeting in Cary, N.C., that high-quality assessments to measure progress toward common standards will cost more than the fill-in-the-bubble variety.

The expense of developing those high-quality tests makes it difficult for any single state to do on its own, which is why the federal government must provide the resources, Mr. Duncan said at an education symposium sponsored by the NGA and the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy.

But he also stressed that the states, not the federal government, will be the driving force behind the effort. And he added that he hopes the states will choose to collaborate with one another.

“Some people may claim that a commonly created test is a threat to state control—but let’s remember who is in charge,” Mr. Duncan said in prepared remarks. “You are. You will create these tests. You will drive the process. You will call the shots.”

Mr. Duncan also said he wants states to work together on so-called formative assessments, which help teachers gauge their students’ progress during the course of the school year.

“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,” Mr. Duncan said. “However, it’s not my job to worry about their business. My job is to worry about kids.”

Testing Crucial

Dane Linn, the education division director of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, said the testing component is a crucial piece of the common-standards effort.

“Standards mean nothing unless we have assessments to measure student performance against them,” he said. He noted that developing common tests could reduce the costs states incur for their testing systems.

Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, Inc., an organization in Washington, called the proposal “potentially groundbreaking.” Achieve has partnered with the CCSSO and the NGA on the common-standards effort and organizes the American Diploma Project, an effort to align K-12 standards, assessments, and accountability systems with college and career readiness.

Mr. Gandal said that even if only a few states eventually receive funding through the Race to the Top fund, a successful push for common assessments could benefit nearly all participating states.

But Eugene W. Hickok, who served as deputy secretary and undersecretary of education during President George W. Bush’s first term, said it may be hard for states to muster the political will to adopt tests that could cast their schools in an unfavorable light.

“Theoretically it’s feasible, theoretically it makes lots of sense, but I do think getting it done will be very, very difficult,” said Mr. Hickok, who also served as the state schools chief in Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001.

“Getting people to agree to a set of standards will be very difficult, Mr. Hickok continued. “And it will be very difficult for [state officials ] to accept a set of standards and assessments that will make [their] state look bad, and inevitably somebody is going to look bad.”

Mr. Duncan addressed that point in his speech.

“The fact is, higher standards will make some of your states look bad in the short term because fewer students will be meeting them,” he told the governors. “So I will work with you to ensure that your states will not be penalized for doing the right thing.”

He said he wants to see the 7-year-old federal No Child Left Behind Act rewritten to make sure that it rewards states for raising their standards. But he gave no further details as to what that might look like.

Time Line Set

The $350 million for assessments means that the $4.35 billion Race to the Top state-grant funding is now down to $4 billion.

The Race to the Top program is a part of up to $100 billion for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grant program is intended to reward states that make significant progress on teacher distribution and effectiveness, standards and assessments, data systems, and turning around low-performing schools.

States can either collaborate with one another or apply on their own for the grants, Mr. 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 the second round of funding.

Under the time line outlined today, the agency in late July will publish a proposed grant application and evaluation criteria in the Federal Register and will seek public comment for 30 days. In October, states will be officially invited to apply for the funds.

In December, the first phase of the applications will be due. The grant winners will be announced in March 2010. The applications for the second phase of funding will be due in June 2010. Those winners will be announced in September of 2010.

Mr. Duncan’s speech to the governors on standards and assessments was one in a series on each of the four “assurances” spelled out in the stimulus package. Those assurances are essentially four education policy areas in which states must agree to improve as a condition of receiving a major piece of the stimulus funding.

Next, Mr. Duncan will talk about turning around low-performing school on June 22 at the National Charter School Conference in Washington. He will outline his vision for teacher and principal quality in a speech to the National Education Association in July. The NEA has historically been critical of performance pay, which has been a key feature of Mr. Duncan’s rhetoric on teacher effectiveness.

Education Week Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this story.

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