Corrected: This story originally misidentified Sen. Raikes’ party affiliation. He is an Independent.
In a policy shift of interest beyond Nebraska, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman has signed a bill authorizing statewide reading and math exams to coexist 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 said he 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.
But Mr. Christensen said the state has no plans to ditch the School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System. STARS is Nebraska’s existing network of math, reading, and other subject-area assessments. Each of the state’s 254 school districts has its own system of testing for those subjects.
Although Mr. Christensen said the U.S. Department of Education 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 last February, by state Sen. Ron Raikes, the author of the new state law.
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.
Comparable Scores Sought
Sen. Raikes, an Independent, insists he doesn’t want to replace the homegrown STARS system 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 STARS 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.”
George H. Wood, the principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, sees the new law as another nail in the coffin of locally based assessment.
“The unfortunate thing is that Nebraska leads the country in assessment,” said Mr. Wood, who directs the Forum for Education and Democracy, a national group opposed to high-stakes standardized testing. “They’ve developed a really thoughtful and sensitive system that’s really teacher-centered.”
But it’s not certain that the 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.