California education leaders closer to deal with feds over standardized tests

The Fresno BeeNovember 21, 2013 

In a 2011 file photo, students take part in a math game at Liberty Elementary School in Fresno.


State education officials have reversed course on a disputed standardized testing plan, promising on Thursday to test most children in both English and math next spring -- and possibly ending a spat with federal officials.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson sent a letter to school districts Wednesday night outlining a plan to test almost all students this coming spring in grades three through eight and certain high schoolers. On Thursday, he announced the state will pursue a federal waiver that allows California to move forward with the plan.

Districts would use a pilot test called the Smarter Balanced Consortium Field Test and would not collect individual student test scores.The assessment will be a trial-run and is intended to prepare California schools and students for a complete roll-out of a new standardized state test-- which examines students in the new, more rigorous Common Core standards -- in the 2014-15 school year.

"Ninety-five percent of students will take a sampling of both (English) and mathematics items ... the remaining 5% of students will take either (English) or mathematics items," the letter reads.

The move represents a turnaround from the state's original plans to test students only in one subject or the other, a decision that triggered almost immediate blow-back from the federal government. No Child Left Behind regulations require states to assess all students yearly in both English and math.

In late October, Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, threatened to withhold $15 million in Title I dollars and possibly $3.5 billion in other funds if California officials failed to align testing with federal accountability requirements. Title I funding goes to schools with high numbers of low-income students.

According to the letter from Delisle, the state had a few options.

The state could test all students using the old STAR standardized assessments. But lawmakers scrapped the test over the summer, a move largely praised by districts as they move to the new Common Core guidelines.

Federal officials also said California could instead use both the old test and a Common Core field assessment. A third option: request a "double-testing waiver" that allows only the field test.

Montana this month was the first state to receive that waiver. Torlakson said California now plans to pursue one. In a statement, he said he made the decision after districts said they wanted students examined in both subjects.

"This move to up-to-date new assessments marks a major step forward in California's work to ensure that every student graduates equipped to succeed in college and careers," he said in the statement. "These field tests simply make good sense, and expanding them to include both subjects for most students makes even better sense."

Richard Zeiger, California's chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, said the price of testing both subjects is "roughly comparable" to the original plan. The state has set aside $34 million to help launch the tests.

Before Thursday's announcement, some Valley districts were scrambling to come up with a plan to safeguard against losing Title I funding.

For example, Clovis Unified was planning to draft its own year-end test with both an English and math component. The district planned to submit the results to parents and the federal education department, but because talks with California education leaders were ongoing, federal officials never agreed to accept the scores.

"We're glad to hear it appears the state and federal government have found a solution," said Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants, "but for us, we still need to look at how that will impact the goals we have around student learning." She said the district hasn't ruled out conducting its own test this spring.

Fresno Unified intended to spend $500,000 to buy enough English and math tests for all its students if the federal and state agencies failed to reach a deal. Now the district may not need to spend the money, said chief financial officer Ruth Quinto.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Mike Hanson, who had been openly critical of the state's initial plans, praised the state's reversal.

"We believe all kids should be tested in both subjects so we could give students and parents a feel" for testing under Common Core, he said. "I'm glad they apparently found a way to make that happen."

Federal education officials could not be reached for comment.

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

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