Federal

State Tests Not All OK Under Law

By David J. Hoff — March 31, 2008 5 min read
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Six years after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, many states still haven’t completed one of its most important tasks: establishing a testing system that meets the law’s requirement that they track all students’ progress toward proficiency in reading and math.

Although the progress has been slow, U.S. Department of Education officials and state leaders suggest that states have made adequate strides in meeting the formidable challenge of dramatically increasing the amount of testing and creating new exams that measure the success of students with disabilities.

“States have been working very hard on this,” said Kerri L. Briggs, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “Some of it was tough work, and [some] need more time to get it done.” The Education Department has approved the testing plans of 31 states.

Another four states and the District of Columbia are making final changes that the department requested. Department officials expect those five plans to be approved by the end of this school year, Ms. Briggs said.

Nine states are revising their plans, but won’t be done until at least the 2008-09 school year.

The six other states and Puerto Rico don’t have approved plans and are unlikely to complete that task soon.

The department is negotiating compliance agreements with them that would include the steps they would need to take to comply with the law within two or three years.

“We’ll have them on a good path to finishing their work,” Ms. Briggs said.

One critic of the pace said that states should be much further along in complying with the testing rules. The 1994 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the latest version, required states to assess students in key subjects at least three times during their K-12 careers—thus pointing the way, that critic suggested, to the more extensive NCLB mandate.

“That [1994 law] telegraphed the importance of this issue,” said Christopher T. Cross, the chairman of Cross & Joftus LLC, a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting firm, and a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. “Here we are now, 14 years later, and states are still working on it.”

The approval status of a state’s testing plan has become especially important recently because a state must have such approval to participate in two federal projects intended to give states greater flexibility in implementing the NCLB law.

Stakes for States

Under the so-called growth-model project , the Education Department intends to approve all qualifying states’ plans to determine schools’ and districts’ accountability status based on the growth in students’ test scores. The other project would allow states to differentiate the interventions they conduct in schools based on how far away those schools are from meeting their achievement goals under the law. (“States Get Flexibility on Targets,” March 26, 2008.)

For that project, the Education Department will consider the applications of states that are on track to win approval for their testing systems by the end of the current school year, said Chad Colby, a department spokesman.

But it’s important that any state have completed all the work on its testing systems before it implements any plan under the new initiatives, Ms. Briggs said. “States need to have that structure in place to make this happen,” she said. “They need to do that work first before they can move to graduate-level accountability, as the secretary [of education] calls it.”

South Dakota, one of the nine states that are working to win approval of their accountability systems in the 2008-09 school year, won’t qualify for the so-called “differentiated accountability” pilot project.

In her March 18 speech announcing the project, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings lauded South Dakota as one of the “pioneers for reform” based on the quality of its accountability system. But the state may have sacrificed the quality of its tests because it worked to implement the annual assessments in the 2002-03 school year—four years before the law required states to have annual testing in certain subjects and grades.

“We were moving quickly,” said Rick Melmer, South Dakota’s secretary of education and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “The quality of our exam probably needed to be looked at more closely.”

Mr. Melmer said the state must improve the rigor of its tests to ensure they are aligned with state standards before it wins the federal Education Department’s approval for the assessments.

Tough Jobs

Although many states are struggling to complete their testing plans, Mr. Melmer and education leaders in other states say they have worked diligently to improve and expand their testing systems in the six years since the NCLB law’s enactment.

“There has been a great amount of maturity that is there now that wasn’t there five years ago,” John R. Tanner, the director of the Washington-based CCSSO’s Center for Innovative Measures.

When President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, most states’ testing systems fell far short of the law’s requirements to test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Before the NCLB law, most states tested students at three points: once each in elementary, middle, and high school. Although the 1994 version of the ESEA required states to do that, not all had complied by the time of the No Child Left Behind law’s enactment.

In 2001, nine states had reading and math tests tied directly to their standards for grades 3-8, according to an Education Week survey. An additional eight states gave norm-referenced tests—which judge students against a national sampling of other students, not against state standards—in both subjects in grades 3-8. (“Testing Systems in Most States Not ESEA-Ready,” Jan. 9, 2002.)

Mr. Tanner of the CCSSO said that the biggest hurdle for most states has been establishing separate tests to assess students with severe disabilities. Even though the 1994 version of the ESEA required states to have such tests in place, the federal government didn’t enforce that requirement.

Since the NCLB law took effect, all states have written new academic standards and created alternate assessments based on alternative definitions of proficiency. None of them had done so before.

“It’s been completely new territory for us,” said Mr. Melmer.

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