States Seek Flexibility During Common-Test Transition

By Michele McNeil & Catherine Gewertz — June 11, 2013 8 min read
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With the debut of common assessments less than two years away, states and districts are worried about the accountability systems that hinge on those tests. A growing chorus of policy groups is urging more flexibility in how states evaluate teachers, label schools, and enforce other high-stakes consequences during what’s likely to be a messy transition.

Position papers from a range of organizations seek to stake out turf on the delicate question of how to postpone or temporarily ease some rules without abandoning accountability, at a time when the new, tougher assessments are projected to send test scores—at least at first—into a nose dive.

Whether those moves are coming too late is an open question.

“I see this discussion at 30,000 feet about whether the common core is good or not good. But what I don’t see is the kind of work that makes for good transitional policy,” said Sandy Kress, an Austin, Texas, lawyer and former education aide to President George W. Bush who helped write the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Kress, who has worked on accountability issues in Texas for decades, pointed out that most states have reworked their standards and tests in recent years and have figured out how to hold the line on accountability. But they’ve done so after years of planning for those transitions, he said.

“The questions are, what would a transitional accountability system look like? Are there pathways that could allow us to compare apples to apples in the old and new tests? Can we get the test-makers of the old tests and new tests to sit down and talk about that?” Mr. Kress said.

Assessment Consortia Membership

$360 million in federal grants has gone to groups of states developing common assessments.


SOURCES: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium; Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers

“If people aren’t beginning to talk about these issues aggressively,” he said, “it could very well be too late.”

Through the Council of Chief State School Officers, state schools superintendents are calling on the U.S. Department of Education to grant states the flexibility they need to manage accountability, testing, and teacher evaluations in the next two years. That is on top of the flexibility 37 states and the District of Columbia have already garnered from the Education Department in the form of waivers from key tenets of the No Child Left Behind law.

The chiefs issued a May 28 statement asking for permission to hold school designations steady in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. They also want federal officials to consider states’ requests to delay using test scores in teacher evaluations, something that could pose a problem since those linkages are embedded in many states’ NCLB waivers or in the winning plans of the 12 Race to the Top states. The chiefs also want the department to allow them more discretion in deciding which tests to use for federal accountability.

The Education Department hasn’t yet decided how to approach the thorny accountability issues. Three high-level department officials met with CCSSO leaders and top-level representatives of 35 states in Chicago last month to discuss the matter, but no clear guidance had been issued as of late last week.

Daren Briscoe, an Education Department spokesman, had no comment about those issues.

Taking Positions

Just days after the state chiefs staked out their position, a coalition of national groups representing principals, school board members, and local superintendents weighed in with its own statement. The coalition asked for “adequate” time to facilitate a “thoughtful conversation” about how tests could be used to provide information that’s instructionally valuable to schools.

Those groups cautioned against relying too heavily on tests for federal accountability until the Common Core State Standards, and tests that reflect them, are fully implemented.

The week before, a small group of state schools superintendents called Chiefs for Change issued a statement urging states to go full steam ahead with accountability tied to tests for the common standards, which cover English/language arts and math and have been adopted by most of the states.

Known for their conservative approach to accountability, those chiefs contended that any easing of the rules would water down pressure for school improvement.

The statements by those groups of education leaders came after the announcement of a push by the American Federation of Teachers to temporarily suspend any high-stakes consequences stemming from tests on the common core.

In a speech April 30, AFT President Randi Weingarten argued that teachers have not had enough time or resources to adjust to the standards, so it’s unfair to expect them to bring students to mastery on tests so soon. Anticipating that she would be accused of backing away from accountability, Ms. Weingarten said the moratorium should be confined to the “transitional years,” when school systems are absorbing the required shifts.

See Also

Read related story, “State Opposition Jeopardizes Common-Core Future.”

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO, which helped spearhead the common standards effort alongside the nation’s governors, said his members knew months ago that the accountability transition could prove difficult and began discussing it internally. When Ms. Weingarten called for a moratorium, he said, many state chiefs felt they wanted to make their own positions clear.

What states need, he said, isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but the room to figure things out in ways that fit them best.

“Most states are saying we don’t need a pause or a moratorium,” Mr. Minnich said. “Each state is in a different position, and some need flexibility to be able look at their timelines and be smart about what they are doing. We do agree states need the time to do this well. At the same time, we have come a long way, and we don’t want to lose momentum.”

“Nobody is looking for relief from accountability,” said Tom Luna, Idaho’s schools superintendent.

Mr. Luna said that while some Idaho schools began common-core-aligned instruction this academic year, all schools in the state aren’t expected to do so until 2013-14.

In contrast, schools in North Carolina just completed their first year of such teaching, and the state administered its first round of tests reflecting the common core last month, said schools Superintendent June Atkinson. “That illustrates why states need flexibility,” she said.

Navigating the Rules

Yet states are subject to an increasingly outdated federal accountability law that’s hardly flexible. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, calls for annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school—with a rising set of goals for schools that requires them to get 100 percent of their students to proficiency in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

As the deadline for reaching those goals gets closer, more schools are expected to fail to meet them, which triggers an escalating set of responses, such as having to provide school choice to students. With new tests, schools likely will fail to make progress at an even faster rate.

Only 13 states are still subject to the original NCLB law.

Even waivers that the Education Department has awarded to the remaining states don’t leave much wiggle room during the transition to new tests.

For instance, the waiver rules require states to pilot new teacher-evaluation systems, which must use student growth on tests as a “significant” factor in evaluation, in the 2013-14 school year—before the new common tests are fully operational.

States must then implement the new evaluations statewide in 2014-15, when the common assessments are expected to begin and test scores are expected to plummet. The new teacher-evaluation systems then must be tied to personnel decisions and consequences in 2015-16, just a year into the new tests.

All the original Race to the Top states that are sharing the $4 billion in competitive grants funded by the 2009 economic-stimulus package promised to adhere to a similar timeline.

See Also

Read related story, “Peer Review of State Assessments Put on Hold.”

While the CCSSO, a broader group of chiefs, thinks federal officials should be open to delaying that timeline for states with waivers, the smaller Chiefs for Change disagrees.

Those waivers were a commitment to students, said Hanna Skandera, the president of Chiefs for Change and New Mexico’s schools chief.

“If we ask for a waiver and make commitments, we intend to keep them,” she said. “Accountability delayed isn’t real accountability.”

Under the waivers, states must adopt and implement college- and career-readiness standards, whether the common core or a set of standards certified by a state’s own system of higher education. And states must give tests—every year—that are aligned to those new standards, which are then used to make accountability determinations for schools.

For example, test scores are used to help determine which schools are the lowest-performing “priority” or “focus” schools.

New tests will likely muddy the picture of determining which schools need the most drastic interventions, and for how long. That’s why the CCSSO wants to keep school labels or ratings the same for a couple of years until test scores presumably stabilize and a truer picture of student performance based on new standards emerges. Another issue the CCSSO raised with federal officials is potential “double testing” in states that participate in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. That group, one of two major state coalitions using federal money to design tests for the common standards, will be administering field tests in 2014.

Those tests could involve more than 3 million students in the consortium’s 25 states, causing worry about how much instructional time will be displaced by the combination of states’ regular assessments and the field tests,said Joe Willhoft, the executive director of Smarter Balanced.

Chiefs in those states are asking federal officials to consider a range of options, including letting them use the field tests in place of their own that year for accountability and crafting shorter versions of their state tests to “free up room in the testing window” for the field tests, Mr. Willhoft said.

The other main consortium designing common tests, the 22-member Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, plans field tests in 2014 that will involve about 1 million students, said spokesman Chad Colby.

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as States Seek Flexibility on Testing


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