In a significant policy shift, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, has signed into law a measure authorizing statewide reading and mathematics exams that would supplement—and could eventually compete with—the state’s unique patchwork of district-level assessments.
The law , finalized on the last day of Nebraska’s legislative session, made the Cornhusker State the last to move toward uniform, statewide assessments to meet the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
What might happen next, however, nobody quite knows.
“It’s really hard to read that bill and see what it means,” said Doug Christensen, the state’s commissioner of education, who will spend the next three to six months figuring out how to integrate the local and state-based systems.
On paper, the law looks straightforward: Starting in the 2009-10 school year, the state will begin giving students a uniform exam on which they will have to demonstrate their reading competency. In 2010-11, the same thing will happen in math. Statewide writing exams for grades 4, 8, and 11 have been in place since 2000-01.
But Mr. Christensen said the state has no plans to ditch the School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System, or STARS, Nebraska’s existing network of math, reading, and other subject-area assessments, which went into effect in 2000-01.
Each of the state’s 254 school districts has its own system of testing for those subjects. (“Nebraska Swims Hard Against Testing’s Tides,” Feb. 21, 2007.)
Although Mr. Christensen said the U.S. Department of Education’s process for approving STARS appears nearly complete, the department last year designated the system “nonapproved” for the 2005-06 school year, and noted that the state would not be able to comply with the NCLB law during the 2006-07 school year.
That finding was cited in a state audit , released in February, that was ordered by state Sen. Ron Raikes, the author of the new state law, which passed 30-13, with six senators not voting.
The department cited the difficulty of documenting all the widely varying forms of assessment the districts use—everything from multiple-choice paper tests to hands-on lab experimentation.
Sen. Raikes, an Independent in Nebraska’s 49-member unicameral legislature, insists he doesn’t want to replace the homegrown STARS with statewide exams; he just wants different districts’ scores to be comparable within the state.
“If you have a statewide math test, would you still use lab experiments or whatever [from the current system] within your classroom to make your students achieve better? Sure you would,” he said. “The only question would be if you use it as an accountability measure or a teaching technique.”
Sen. Raikes also cited teacher complaints that the STARS assessments take too much time from instruction, and noted that the existing system seems to overstate students’ achievement levels when the scores are compared with such tests as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the ACT college-admissions exam.
Mr. Christensen, a staunch defender of Nebraska’s locally developed assessments, believes time will tell whether the newly mandated battery of statewide tests will really help educators and students.
“At worst it’ll be redundant,” he said. “At best, it’ll be value-added.”
In the meantime, he sees nothing wrong with STARS’ diversity of achievement measurements.
“If I measure the distance to Chicago with a ruler, a yardstick, and the odometer on my car, the distance to Chicago doesn’t change,” he said. “I just report the results differently, and that’s what we have.”
George H. Wood, who directs the Forum for Education and Democracy, a national group opposed to high-stakes standardized testing, is critical of the new law.
“The unfortunate thing is that Nebraska leads the country in assessment,” said Mr. Wood, who’s also the principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio. “They’ve developed a really thoughtful and sensitive system that’s really teacher-centered.”
Nebraska’s education department is still working out what form the new statewide reading and math tests will take. And it’s not even certain that the new law’s directives will be carried out. In 1998, then-Gov. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, signed a similar bill into law, and it remains on the books. But he subsequently vetoed the funding for it, so the tests the law authorized were never put in place.
“There’s still time to undo this,” Mr. Wood said, noting that the new assessments won’t see the business end of a No. 2 pencil until 2009. “That’s an election cycle. And in an unicameral legislature, it doesn’t take many seats to change direction.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Nebraska Moves to Statewide Reading, Math Exams