Central Valley educators watch bill that would replace STAR test

The Fresno BeeSeptember 5, 2013 

State lawmakers are poised to OK legislation that would eliminate California's annual Standardized Testing and Reporting program, even though some districts fear the change would throw a wrench in accountability to the federal government.

The bill — which was revised this week and heads to the Senate on Monday — would suspend the math and English portions of the STAR test this year and give districts the option to pilot a new assessment that's aligned with new state education standards. Students in grades five, eight and 10 will still take California's standardized science test this spring.

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said Thursday the bill will replace STAR with the Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress, or MAPP, by the 2014-15 school year. He said the state plans to pay for the test with funds typically used to administer STAR.

"This is a transition year, and if you think this represents a challenge for California's education system, you're right," he said during a call with reporters. "But, it's a manageable one."

Next spring, schools statewide will have the option to give the test a trial run. The scores would be used solely for test development purposes. And for two years, the state will be exempt from having to compile the Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized tests.

The goal is simple: the state wants to test students on what they're expected to learn under the new Common Core standards, a set of benchmarks adopted by 45 states aimed at boosting students' college and career readiness.

To make the changes, the state still needs to secure a waiver from certain accountability provisions in the federal government's No Child Left Behind law. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in June announced a one-year waiver option for states looking to roll out new tests.

But the bill that would swap STAR for MAPP is raising eyebrows among some local district officials who say it fails to outline how and whether districts will still be held accountable by the federal government.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst told reporters the board is pursuing a limited reprieve from NCLB's testing requirements.

"There's no set timeline, but we have total flexibility on when we can and will submit the waiver," he said.

Local district administrators, including Sanger Unified Superintendent Matthew Navo, say they still have questions.

Navo said he's glad the state is moving away from STAR — a test he says is outdated and no longer a useful way to measure what students are learning.

But creating a one-year gap in test results by using the pilot test, he said, will make it tricky for certain schools with low test scores.

Right now, those "program improvement" schools — a federal designation indicating they don't meet certain benchmarks — face penalties each year if they don't shape up. Those schools get four years to improve before they're faced with state takeover or other major sanctions.

Navo said pausing testing doesn't mean those schools won't still be held accountable by the federal government.

"It's extremely complicated in my mind, because how then does a school waive out of program improvement?" he said.

"They are basically stuck with the spring 2013 results."

A U.S. Department of Education official who asked her name be withheld said the department is still "reviewing the specifics of the pending California decision."

The department hasn't determined how program improvement schools will be affected, she said.

Both Sanger and Fresno Unified school districts are part of an eight-school consortium known as CORE that this summer were granted a separate waiver from NCLB's most stringent requirements.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said uncertainty about the fate of program improvement schools is partially why he applied for the waiver in the first place.

"There's no real leadership on that question, which is why we stepped out with our CORE waiver," he said.

"We're trying to figure it out as fast as we can and as best as we can."

Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said she too is waiting to read the fine print.

"There's a great number of details that would be precedent-setting for a state," Avants said. "While we're very interested in the process and the potential of having that work out, we think there's a long road ahead."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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