College & Workforce Readiness

Testing: A Lot Is Riding on Federal Negotiations

By Catherine Gewertz — March 07, 2016 3 min read
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Wonk alert! A set of talks in Washington this spring has serious power to shape school testing in the coming years, particularly at the high school level.

What’s going on? It’s called negotiated rulemaking. As my colleague Alyson Klein explains on the Politics K-12 blog, negotiated rulemaking—known as “neg reg” to insiders—is a process that flows from the new Every Student Succeeds Act. Appointed negotiators gather to discuss certain key issues, to see if they can agree on regulatory language for the law. Assessment is one of those issues.

As Alyson explains, neg reg often doesn’t produce agreement, so regulations are drafted the standard way: Federal education officials draft language, put it out there for public comment, then finalize it and publish it in the Federal Register. But ESSA requires the education department to try negotiated rulemaking first, focusing on three issues. And assessment, particularly at the high school level, is on the table.

When they named the negotiators last Friday, education officials issued a set of briefing papers to guide their work. One of those papers focuses on questions about a new provision of the federal education law that allows states to use “a nationally recognized” test in place of standards-based tests in high school.

Lawmakers clearly had the SAT or ACT in mind when they wrote this new provision into the law. But one question negotiators will likely consider is whether those are the only two tests that states and districts can choose to meet the requirements of the law.

As we’ve reported to you, using the SAT or ACT instead of standards-based tests raises a number of issues. For one, no independent studies have been done to confirm that either of those tests aligns to a given state’s academic standards, so they’re unproven as methods of measuring student mastery of those standards. Experts told us that the college-entrance exams have been validated only as measurements of students’ likely success in college, not of their mastery of state standards.

In its briefing paper, the education department reminds negotiators that ESSA requires that any “nationally recognized” high school test used in lieu of standards-based tests must reflect “the breadth and depth” of a state’s standards, and be “equivalent in its content coverage, difficulty, and quality” to the state’s own tests. It asks them to consider how to write regulations that ensure that “nationally recognized” high school tests are comparable to a state’s own assessments, so students who take the SAT or ACT in one school district are producing results comparable to those in a district that chose to stick with its state’s own test.

One issue facing negotiators is the question of equal access to the SAT or ACT in states that choose to require one of those tests for all students. In a recent story, we reported that the College Board and ACT don’t always grant the same testing accommodations for those exams that students having been using for years on state tests. Those practices have caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Justice. And they’re going to be on the table as regulations are written for ESSA.

Negotiators are being asked to consider how regulations should be written to ensure that accommodations provided on those “nationally recognized” high school tests reflect the needs of students with special needs. And there’s this related question to consider:

That question reflects a dilemma we wrote about: In some states that require the SAT or ACT, students can face a painful choice. If ACT or the College Board won’t approve their normal testing accommodations, they must take the test without them, and risk a compromised score, or insist on their typical accommodations and give up the chance to use their score for college admissions. Clearly, the education department has its eye on this problem and wants regulations written to address it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.