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Federal Review Puts State Tests Under Scrutiny

By Lynn Olson — November 29, 2005 3 min read
SP testing

By the end of this month, 26 states will have undergone a “peer review” to determine whether their standards and tests meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The reviews, conducted by a team of at least three experts in the fields of standards and assessment, are required under the law. The reviewers do not look at the standards and tests themselves, but at documents showing that the assessments meet the law’s requirements.

Boxes of tests arrive in the scanning room.

As of Nov. 21, the U.S. Department of Education had posted letters to six states—Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia—on its Web site granting them “deferred” or “final review pending” status under the law.

To receive deferred approval, a state must be able to fully implement its standards and tests this school year; “final review pending” indicates the state still has not met the preponderance of NCLB testing requirements and must submit more evidence. Such documentation can range from technical reports or test manuals, to state statutes and regulations, to memos summarizing the testing program.

One of the issues giving states trouble is a requirement to provide “performance descriptors” that explain the competencies a student must master in mathematics or reading to reach a particular performance level, such as “proficient.”

Those descriptions must pertain to specific academic content, said Sue Rigney, an education specialist at the Education Department. “What’s not acceptable is to see these very generic descriptors that are the same across grade levels and content areas,” she said.

States also are struggling to prove the quality of their alternate assessments for students with disabilities who cannot take the regular exams, and those tests’ link to state standards.

View a complete collection of stories in this Education Week special report, Testing Takes Off.

States were required to have alternate assessments in place by 2001 under the prior reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But it wasn’t until last summer that the department provided guidance about the criteria for such tests if they are pegged to other than a grade-level standard.

As a result, said Rachel Quenemoen, a senior research fellow at the National Center on Education Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, states have been designing alternate assessments during a period of constantly changing policy and emerging research.

“The states have come a long, long way,” she said, “but the depth of the research and the attention that it’s gotten is very, very slim. The conditions under which states were working with alternate assessments have changed dramatically.”

‘Really Encouraged’

As they add tests this school year to comply with the nearly 4-year-old NCLB law, states must design performance standards for those new tests that mesh with those already set for other grades.

In many cases, that will require states to revisit their existing cutoff scores, so that students who perform well in one grade can reasonably be expected to perform well in the next.

Much of that standards-setting will occur over the summer of 2006, after the new tests are given for the first time this coming spring. That will require the federal Education Department to gather additional evidence from most states before it can give full approval to their systems.

Even so, said Kerri L. Briggs, a senior policy adviser in the office of the deputy U.S. secretary of education, “I think we’re really encouraged at this point about where states are.”

Fewer than a dozen states, she noted, had received final approval of their testing systems under the previous reauthorization of the federal education law, in 1994. This time around, the department has made it clear that waivers of the law’s testing requirements will not be acceptable.

“From the get-go, we’ve been really serious about this provision, in particular,” said Ms. Briggs, “and we have every intention of implementing it.”

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