Common-Core Testing: Two States Seek Flexibility, Get Very Different Responses

By Catherine Gewertz — October 10, 2014 3 min read
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It seems that Massachusetts can violate federal testing law and get only a mild scolding from the U.S. Department of Education. But when Colorado asked for some leeway on testing, it received a stern response and a warning that such flexibility could cost it millions in federal aid.

The sharp contrast has emerged in the past week, in letters to the two states. The letter to Massachusetts was a notification of its No Child Left Behind waiver extension, as we reported here yesterday. The letter to Colorado, published by Chalkbeat, came in response to the state’s inquiry about testing flexibility. Both letters were from Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle.

While Massachusetts won renewal of its waiver, it did not secure approval from the department to let its districts choose whether to administer the state’s current test, the MCAS, or the PARCC assessment next spring. In her two-page letter, Delisle said that federal law requires states to use one assessment for all children. But the compliance deadline in the letter was 2015-16, which allows Massachusetts to do what it planned to do anyway: let districts make the choice between MCAS and PARCC in 2014-15. The state board would then choose one statewide assessment for 2015-16.

The letter to Colorado took a very different tone. In seven pages, Delisle detailed the sections and subsections of federal law and regulations that forbid Colorado from moving forward with various kinds of test flexibility. Colorado Education Commissioner Robert K. Hammond had sought those citations, asking the department in an August letter to lay out the pertinent restrictions on a state’s assessment choices.

Under fire from districts, the state board in Colorado has been considering ways to ease the amount of testing it requires. Among the options it’s been considering are letting districts choose which tests to use, and moving to a “sampling” approach, which ensures a representative sample of children are tested but doesn’t require every child to be assessed.

Responding to Hammond’s question about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s authority to waive federal testing requirements, Delisle offered a response that could prove to be a touchstone as the department contemplates what kind of flexibility—if any—to grant on testing.

She told Hammond that the secretary has the authority to waive federal testing rules for states, but not for districts (which is intriguing, since, as my colleague Alyson Klein reports, the department has waived testing rules for a district in Kansas). Her response also lays out the justification the secretary would use if he did grant state flexibility: he would have to find “compelling reasons” that such flexibility would “increase the quality of instruction for students and improve their academic achievement.”

Hammond shared Delisle’s letter with the board this week. The parameters she outlined led Hammond to conclude that "... we’re stuck. ... We basically ran out of options for next year,” according to Chalkbeat.

If a state’s leadership really wanted to move toward testing flexibility, it’s likely pretty disappointed right now. If it wanted some powerful ammunition to use against districts when they protest about rigid testing requirements, however, it seems to have gotten it.

UPDATED: A U.S. Department of Education official offered these thoughts on its letters to Colorado and Massachusetts.

“Our responses to these requests are consistent,” the official said, noting that Colorado didn’t ask for testing flexibility; it only asked for—and received—specific guidance about the requirements of the law and regulations.

The official emphasized that Massachusetts did not get permission to let districts pick which tests to administer to students. The state must come up with a plan to comply with the law, and if it doesn’t comply, the department could “take additional enforcement action.”

The waiver the department granted to Kansas wasn’t a waiver to a district, but to the state, for a short-term pilot to “hold students to higher standards as part of a plan to transition to new statewide assessments,” the official said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.