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Nebraska Bill Would Boost State Tests’ Status

Measure seeks to make statewide assessment sole yardstick for NCLB
By Katie Ash — March 19, 2008 5 min read
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Less than a year after mandating statewide reading and math tests as an alternative to Nebraska’s unique grassroots assessments, state lawmakers are poised to neuter the district-level tests altogether.

Under a bill working its way through the unicameral state legislature—with overwhelming support from lawmakers—districts could still administer their locally created assessments, but could not use the results for accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Nebraska currently is the only state that does not use statewide standardized tests to meet accountability requirements under the NCLB law. And while the state education department has worked hard to make the home-grown assessments comply with the federal law, that hasn’t happened, said Jim Scheer, a member of the Nebraska board of education.

“We need to find something that allows us to become compliant, because the federal government and NCLB are not going to go away,” he said.

‘Nothing Positive’

But while the state legislation has some district-level support, it is drawing sharp criticism from top Nebraska education officials and standardized-testing critics nationally.

“I see nothing positive in terms of good public policy or good education policy in state testing,” said Douglas D. Christensen, the state commissioner of education. “I’ve spent my life trying to build up an accountability system that starts from the classroom and builds up,” as opposed to one that starts at the top and trickles down, he said.

George H.Wood, the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, a national group opposed to high-stakes standardized testing, based in Amesville, Ohio, also opposes the idea of supplanting the district-level tests.

“You have a system that’s valid, that has led to instructional improvement, improved teacher competence in assessment by investing in teacher expertise, a system that has a lot of community support—to eliminate it seems to be heading in the wrong direction,” Mr. Wood said.

The district-level tests at the heart of the debate were instituted under the 8-year-old School-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System, or STARS, which requires each of the Cornhusker State’s 254 school districts to create evaluations based on district-level standards that are equal to or harder than state-set standards.

Bowing to concerns about compliance with the NCLB law, the Nebraska legislature last year passed a law requiring statewide assessments in reading and math in just three grades, while leaving the local assessments in place. At that time, Mr. Christensen and supporters of the local tests envisioned a possible “marriage” between both the state and local assessments. (“Nebraska Swims Hard Against Testing’s Tides,” June 12, 2007.)

But the new plan, Legislative Bill 1157, would render STARS null from a federal standpoint, while requiring reading and math assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school, with reading tests to start in the 2009-10 school year and math in the 2010-11 school year. The federal law mandates testing in the two subjects in those grades as a central part of its effort to hold schools accountable for student performance.

So far, LB 1157 has had widespread support in the legislature. It passed unanimously out of the education committee and has passed 30-4 in its first round of voting. The legislature will take two more votes before it goes to Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, who has not taken a position.

Testing Changes Weighed

A 2007 law for the first time set up a statewide assessment program in Nebraska, but the legislature is considering a bill that would expand the program planned to begin in the 2009-10 school year. The proposal would:

• Make the statewide assessments the only tests that could be used to satisfy requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, although districts could still offer their own local assessments if they chose.

• Require statewide reading and math assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The assessments would begin in the 2009-10 school year for reading, and in the 2010-11 school year for math. The current law requires tests only in three still-unspecified grades.

• Require a statewide assessment in science, beginning in the 2011-12 school year, at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

• Establish a governor-appointed advisory committee to review the statewide assessment plan.

• Align statewide assessments with state standards.

Source: Education Week

The eight-member state board of education has reluctantly supported the proposal, with two caveats: that a technical-advisory panel be chosen by the board instead of by the governor, and that the assessments be given in no more than four grades, which would allow STARS to be used to meet NCLB accountability requirements in the remaining grades.

But, as the bill currently stands, those recommendations have not been added.

According to Fred C. Meyer, the president of the board, the majority of board members “aren’t big fans of LB 1157” and support STARS.

“They’re only doing it for comparability reasons,” he said. “There’s no educational benefit.”

However, Mr. Scheer, a supporter of statewide tests, said that moving to a statewide assessment program would reduce the burden on teachers who may like the STARS tests but who find it burdensome to document the results in a way that satisfies NCLB reporting requirements.

“They feel like they’ve become more administrators than teachers because of the [amount] of paperwork that they have to do,” Mr. Scheer said.

Local Views

Some administrators at the district level say they would welcome the uniformity and comparability that statewide assessments would bring.

“This is a huge relief to me and other districts,” said Andrew Rikli, the director of administrative services for the 6,000-student Westside Community Schools in Omaha. “Developing these assessments, scoring these assessments, and revising these assessments is incredibly time-consuming and requires an incredible level of expertise.”

He also said the statewide tests would provide a standard by which districts could measure their students’ performance against that of students in other districts.

“If we’re serious about improving student achievement and evaluating our programs, how can we possibly have an objective opinion without a common metric?” Mr. Rikli said.

But some district officials think the local tests are worth the extra paperwork.

“The current system has allowed us to involve teachers and strengthen their knowledge base in assessment on a day-to-day basis in a way that we’ve found to be very powerful for student learning,” said Cindy L. Gray, the assistant superintendent for curriculum in the 4,500-student Elkhorn public school district, about 15 miles west of Omaha.

Being able to adjust and improve assessments at a local level is important to teachers in the Elkhorn district, Ms. Gray said.

“[A statewide assessment program] is easier, but it’s not better for kids,” she said.

The STARS program has also received accolades from a national group that is a prominent critic of standardized testing.

“All over the country, people have realized that a focus on a single, standardized test … contributes to a narrowing in curriculum and instruction, both in the tested subjects and the reduction of [instruction in] nontested subjects,” said Monty Neill, the deputy director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, based in Cambridge, Mass.

In his view, “the people pushing this in Nebraska are thinking with a narrow conception of accountability and don’t understand, or don’t care about, the educational damage this will cause.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Nebraska Bill Would Boost State Tests’ Status

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