N.D. Districts Can Substitute ACT for State Test

By Catherine Gewertz — March 20, 2018 5 min read
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In the first move of its kind, the U.S. Department of Education has granted North Dakota permission to use a new kind of testing flexibility in federal law: the right to let school districts substitute the ACT for the state’s own required high school assessment.

North Dakota officials announced the decision this month, after receiving a permission-granting letter from the Education Department.

Seventeen districts in North Dakota—which together enroll 3,735 11th grade students, half the state’s high school juniors—will administer the ACT to all 11th graders this spring and use it to report achievement for accountability. Students in those districts will not have to take the state’s required high school exam.

In all other North Dakota districts, students in grades 3-8 and 10 will be required to take the North Dakota State Assessment, a new suite of tests making their debut this spring. Eleventh graders in those districts will also take the ACT, which is required of all students in the state.

That additional testing burden is what led North Dakota to ask for federal permission to take advantage of a provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new federal education law says that if states allow it, districts can stop giving their state’s required high school test and give a “nationally recognized” high school test instead—meaning the SAT or ACT. (A recent study, however, warns states against using college-admissions tests in place of their state tests to measure high school achievement.

“Any time we can take fewer tests in high school, that means our students are spending more time learning in our classrooms, rather than being tested,” Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s state eaducation superintendent, said in a statement.

First Denial, Then Approval

A few states have been exploring the option, but until North Dakota, none had cemented an agreement to do it. Georgia has an assessment task force looking into it and is awaiting results of two studies to inform its thinking. Florida’s plans are up in the air after a study it commissioned found that letting districts use the SAT or ACT instead of state tests might not yield comparable results.

Getting the plan approved in North Dakota was a bumpy road. Despite rhetoric from federal policymakers about ESSA’s new testing flexibility for states, the Education Department turned down North Dakota’s request for a waiver to give its districts the choice of using the ACT this spring.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Baesler, Jason Botel, the federal department’s point man on ESSA, cited that law and regulations that require states to undergo a detailed technical review before districts can get the choice of using the SAT or ACT instead of state-mandated tests.

That review would evaluate whether a college-admissions exam yields valid and reliable achievement data that are also comparable to the state tests other districts would be using. The review would also examine whether all students who need accommodations have access to them on both kinds of tests.

Though it’s enshrined in federal law, the requirement that a state undergo technical review before giving a new test for the first time is counter to current practice. When a state adopts a new test now, it administers the test for one year to gather evidence for the federal “peer review” process. The Education Department then informs the state whether it has been fully approved to use the test.

Full approval is rare, however; typically, states are told their tests “substantially” or “partially” meet federal requirements and must submit more evidence to satisfy peer reviewers. During that process, states can keep using their assessments.

North Dakota was aware of the law’s prior-review requirement, so officials knew they would need a Department of Education waiver in order to give the ACT this spring, along with new state tests.

In a Nov. 29 waiver request, Laurie Matzke, North Dakota’s assistant superintendent, noted the conflict between common peer-review practice and the requirements in ESSA and related regulations, saying that it’s been “common and accepted practice” for states to use a new test and then undergo review.

‘Excessive Testing’ Argument

She argued that if North Dakota had to wait another year to let districts opt for the ACT, it would disrupt the continuity of testing data, since half the state’s high school students would have to take the new 10th grade test this spring and then switch to the ACT in 2019.

Matzke pointed out that refusing the waiver would extend the “excessive testing” that’s been the target of nationwide debate. She said denying the waiver would contradict the spirit of ESSA, which “was created with emphasis on state and local control.” In an interview late last month, Superintendent Baesler noted the “baffling irony” in the law and regulations. If a state wants to adopt the SAT or ACT as its statewide high school exam, it can do so without submitting the test to review before it’s administered for the first time. Prior review is required only if a state wants to let districts substitute one of those tests for its statewide test.

“If we just told all our districts that the ACT was our statewide test, we would have been able to do peer review after the first administration [of the test],” she said. “But we surveyed districts, and they wanted the choice.”

Eventually, Baesler and Botel settled on another way to get plan approval: a little-noticed provision in federal law that allows top officials to use their “transitional authority” to ensure an “orderly transition” to a new law.

In his letter, Botel said that since 2017-18 is the first year of full implementation for ESSA, it’s “reasonable” that North Dakota had not had time for a full technical review of its plan. He approved its plan to let districts choose their high school tests for 2017-18 but said the state must submit to a full review before spring 2019 testing.

It wasn’t clear whether a reluctance to use waivers played a role in the federal Education Department’s decision. The department did not respond to repeated requests for interviews on North Dakota’s waiver application. Under President Barack Obama, the agency was criticized for overusing waivers to advance a policy agenda. Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan allowed states to bypass key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act if they embraced specific department policies, including adopting “college and career ready” academic standards

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as N.D. Districts Can Substitute ACT for State Test


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