Feds set price of defiance on standardized tests: at least $15 million

Credit: iStockphoto.com

The state risks losing millions in federal funding for failing to offer standardized tests to students this year. Credit: iStockphoto.com

The state now knows how much federal funding it stands to lose by declining to give state standardized tests in math and English language arts next spring to all students: at least $15 million – and potentially tens of millions of dollars more.

An assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education cited that figure and warned that the fine and the impact on school districts could be greater in a letter released Monday to State Board of Education Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

The Legislature, by passing Assembly Bill 484 last month, put the state out of compliance with the federal testing requirements law. AB 484 ends most state standardized tests, including English language arts and math for grades 3 to 8 and 11, which are required annually under the No Child Left Behind law. Instead, the state is requiring that all districts administer a preliminary test in the Common Core State Standards in either math or English language arts – but not both – in those grades. In her letter, Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle said that offering one of the two tests wouldn’t meet the law or provide the results that the public relies on.

“By failing to administer a reading/language arts and mathematics assessment to all students in the tested grades, California would be unable to provide this important information to students, principals, teachers, and parents,” she wrote. “In addition, because its new policy violates federal law, California now risks significant enforcement action by the Department” – a loss of $15 million in administrative funding for the state Department of Education plus potentially the $30 million that the state received last year through Title I to administer standardized tests.

California also may be designated a “high-risk grantee,” jeopardizing its ability to get other federal grants and a state waiver from sanctions under NCLB, Delisle stated. California is one of a handful of states yet to get a waiver.

And those are just the state sanctions. Delisle warned that some of the $3.5 billion for disadvantaged students that districts receive under Title I may be in jeopardy, including money for children with disabilities and migrant children, School Improvement Grants for the most struggling schools and professional development funding for teachers. All depend on annual test results that the state wouldn’t be able to provide under AB 484, the letter said.

The latter threat – to withhold money from schools – prompted Kirst and Torlakson to respond Monday: “Federal officials have never before taken money out of classrooms, and we would hope and expect that they would not start now.”

Rationale behind one field test

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Credit: Tom Torlakson's office

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

In authoring AB 484, Torlakson argued – and Kirst and State Board members agreed – that, with school districts pressing ahead to implement the new Common Core standards, it would be counterproductive and distracting to test students under the abandoned state math and English language arts standards. They also said that Common Core field tests would be a valuable trial run on administering tests by computer, allowing districts to better prepare for the official tests a year later, in spring 2015.

At the same time, state education officials said they didn’t want to overload districts and so required that they give students either math or English language arts, not both. Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman also cited potential cost benefits of one test, although the federal penalties would more than wipe out any savings to the state.

In his short statement responding to the letter, Kirst and Torlakson defended the decision to do the field test and implied talks with federal officials would continue.

“California is moving forward now with modern standards and assessments because we want all children – no matter where they come from or where they live – to graduate ready for college and careers,” the statement said. “To the extent there is disagreement with the federal government, there is a process for addressing it, and we’ll continue to work with officials in Washington.”

AB 484 requires all districts to give the field test, but there is no penalty for those districts without the computers and Internet capacity to offer it. Surveys by the state and county superintendents indicate most districts will do the field test. Those that don’t, however, will not give any math or English arts tests next year – another point of contention with Washington.

In an unusual move, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned the Legislature on the eve of the AB 484 vote that passage would create a conflict with federal law and result in sanctions. But Duncan also is a strong supporter of the Common Core, and the federal government funded the two consortiums of states that are developing the new standardized tests.

Recognizing the importance of the field test to the test developers, in July he announced that he would grant waivers from federal testing requirements under No Child Left Behind for those schools that volunteered to do the field testing. But he anticipated between 10 and 20 percent of schools would offer them, not all schools in a  state the size of California. And he expected schools not giving a field test to continue administering their state tests, with results reported to parents. Because field tests are trial runs that include questions that will be discarded, they can’t produce valid scores for either parents or schools.

It’s not clear whether Duncan objected to California’s decision for districts to administer only one of the Common Core tests to students or to its decision to give all students a field test that would not yield scores that could be used for federal accountability purposes.

The state’s largest education organizations representing teachers, administrators and school boards fully backed AB 484 and the end of state tests.

“This law frees students from an outdated testing system and gives them an opportunity to do a practice run this school year on the new computer-based tests. It makes no sense to test students on material they haven’t been taught or to force them to take two tests,” Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, said after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.

However, some state and national advocacy groups representing low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities opposed it, and on Monday, 11 groups signed a lengthy letter praising the threatened sanctions of the Obama administration as “an important first step in protecting the rights of students and parents.”

“We call on California state leaders to fund the full costs of providing both the English and Math Smarter Balanced assessments for school districts, ensure the necessary supports and accommodations for students and fund the analysis required to offer the results of these tests to parents, teachers, and education leaders,” said the letter, whose signers included Education Trust-West, Ed Voice, Parent Revolution and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

In a statement, the eight school districts in the California Office to Reform Education or CORE that do have a one-year No Child Left Behind waiver also called for the state to pay for both Common Core field tests for all students and avoid a confrontation with the federal Department of Education.

“The CORE districts support Secretary Duncan’s efforts and believe that rather than a partial field test of the new assessments, all of our students should have the benefit of taking both the math and the English language arts assessments,” said Michael Hanson, president of CORE and superintendent of Fresno Unified.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster.  Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.  

Filed under: Common Core, Hot Topics, State Board, State Education Policy, Testing and Accountability


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22 Responses to “Feds set price of defiance on standardized tests: at least $15 million”

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  1. Bookworm23 on Nov 23, 2013 at 8:07 pm11/23/2013 8:07 pm

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    “The CORE districts support Secretary Duncan’s efforts and believe that rather than a partial field test of the new assessments, all of our students should have the benefit of taking both the math and the English language arts assessments,” said Michael Hanson, president of CORE and superintendent of Fresno Unified.

    I’m not a Californian and don’t know the whole story-could someone explain to me what Mr. Hanson means by the benefit students receive from taking both tests? Thanks in advance.


    • John Fensterwald on Nov 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm11/23/2013 11:22 pm

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      Bookworm, the state Department of Education had been requiring districts to offer either the math or the English language arts field test in the Common Core standards. Michael Hanson and other other CORE district superintendents wanted their students to take both tests next spring. As it turns out, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson ultimately agreed, as of last week, to pay for administering an abbreviated version of both tests. In that sense, the CORE districts are satisfied. However, the CORE districts want the state to provide schools and students with the results of these tests, so that they can measure their progress on Common Core standards. Since a field test by its nature cannot yield valid or reliable scores — its purpose is to provide information to the creator of the test (the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in this case) – the state does not plan to provide the type of information that CORE wants.

      I believe Michael Hanson may be planning to further explain this point.

      • navigio on Nov 24, 2013 at 9:30 am11/24/2013 9:30 am

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        If that is the measure of ‘benefit’ then I have to ask why districts don’t make internal, ongoing assessment results available to students and even the community. They are given much more often, are aligned with curriculum and are explicitly intended to inform instruction. Although one response might be that they are not standardized (tho that raises a whole slew of other issues), they are probably common at least within a district so school comparison should still be possible.

      • Bookworm23 on Nov 24, 2013 at 6:22 pm11/24/2013 6:22 pm

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        Ah. Thanks so much for the explanation.

  2. Rob on Oct 31, 2013 at 7:51 pm10/31/2013 7:51 pm

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    Bullies, thugs, this is shameful

  3. pluto on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:39 pm10/31/2013 12:39 pm

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    Would giving both ELA and math Smarter Balanced field test even meet the fed requirements? I thought that field tests would not provide student, school, or even district academic results. So, how would doing both tests be any different than doing one? I thought the fed position is that there has to be testing with reportable results, i.e. STAR. What am I missing?

  4. Replies

    • John Fensterwald on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm10/31/2013 12:00 pm

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      I’d say the article dramatically overstates the threat, navigio, though you can read Delisle’s letter yourself. What is realistically at stake is the money that the feds give the state Department of Education to administer tests and Title I, which I believe is about $45 million altogether. Since CDE depends on federal funds to stay in biz, that would hurt.
      It’s very, very unlikely that the feds would withhold any of the $3.5 billion that actually goes to needy kids.

      • navigio on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:19 pm10/31/2013 12:19 pm

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        Thanks John. what do you think the likelihood is that this can be used as a standoff tactic by CA? What is our federal legislators’ take on this?

        I am at the point where I feel like something drastic needs to be used to get any movement by the feds (like nclb reauth, but other similar things).

        Although I generally dont subscribe to the ‘pay your own way’ political arguments, I wonder whether it makes more sense for states to withhold their federal taxes that apply to esea/nclb until something is fixed. Our legislators seem to want to force its own citizens to rely only on the courts to hold people accountable (rather than withholding funds), why cant this tactic not be forced on the feds?

        Note also that a possible negotiation point might be to release the pilot results publicly. This might force us into a bit more responsible transition (such as suggested by doug).

        We might feel like we are making the henhouse safer by removing the fox, but maybe we’re not noticing the approaching wolf..

  5. tmare on Oct 31, 2013 at 9:49 am10/31/2013 9:49 am

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    Some districts have agreed to give both tests to all students despite the fact that they do not have the technology to do it and they do not know how long each test will take to administer. The tests are a pilot test, SBAC has been very clear that we will not receive results, we are simply their guinea pigs. Why would we need to take this test when the results are what Arne want and we will never receive them?

  6. Julie on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:12 am10/31/2013 12:12 am

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    The money is not really being taken from the state but from the corporation that administers the tests. It’s like the 1 billion dollar iPad deal–good for Apple but bad for students and taxpayers. Why doesn’t Arne just cut a check directly to Pearson. Same thing.

  7. Paul on Oct 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm10/30/2013 11:48 pm

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    Fifteen million dollars out of an education budget from all sources that amounts to billions? Sounds like a bargain to me! (While we’re at it, we should also send back the money and the unsaleable surplus agricultural products from the “ketchup and fries are vegetables” school lunch program. The color portraits of Arne Duncan for every school should also be returned.)

    I applaud state educational leaders for refusing to operate two vastly different testing systems at the same time. Their courage gives California’s classroom teachers — many of whom are forging ahead without new textbooks and with little or no training — more room to implement the Common Core.

  8. Bruce William Smith on Oct 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm10/30/2013 9:50 pm

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    As the United States morphs into a plutocracy, it’s difficult to find anyone with the integrity necessary to stand up to bribes and threats of fines. I hope that our governor, state superintendent and state board, who have shown admirable leadership on this issue so far, will continue to stand for a progressive approach to students’ education, as distinguished from those still wedded to this failed policy of the Bush administration. For many years now the Democrats have appeared to be nearly as capitalistic as the Republicans, and workers can find few friends among the incumbent ruling class of Washington, D.C. and the most powerful precincts of the rest of the eastern United States. The information provided by these outdated tests, which mainstream reformers have long wedded themselves too closely to, is not of anything like the value Secretary Duncan ascribes to it, and if we cannot get relief from our misguided federal department of education, we ought to seek it out in Congress, where many senators who created this mess are still in power and should be held accountable for their failure to follow their own legal requirement to update this law.


    • J on Oct 31, 2013 at 9:51 am10/31/2013 9:51 am

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      In October 1979, Congress passed Public Law 96-88 which created the present Department of Education. (ED FACTS, p.4)

      Both chambers had a Democratic majority

      What is Capitalism?

      Capitalism is a social system based on the principle of individual rights. Politically, it is the system of laissez-faire (freedom). Legally it is a system of objective laws (rule of law as opposed to rule of man). Economically, when such freedom is applied to the sphere of production its’ result is the free-market.

      How do you feel about the voucher system and ending the Department of Education?

      I believe what your talking about Bruce is crony capitalist and big government in cahoots with each other.

      • Bruce William Smith on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:15 pm10/31/2013 12:15 pm

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        J, I am concerned that Washington, D.C. and the capitalist cronies that undergird both parties are in cahoots with each other — nothing better illustrates the sleazy symbiosis than the iPad debacle in Los Angeles that Secretary Duncan just interceded in to support his compadre in the district, Superintendent Deasy (so much for accountability in that city). And the because I have so lost faith in the U.S. Department of Education (for whom I briefly worked as a grant reviewer), I have become a strong supporter of vouchers, and would love to bring them here to California so that at least my own son and his friends whom I have been teaching will have a better shot at the kind of future that families all around California want for their children but will be unable to achieve thanks to the awful leadership that has been emanating from Washington, D.C. for over a decade.

  9. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) on Oct 30, 2013 at 11:00 am10/30/2013 11:00 am

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    Will the State roll over and take instruction from the Feds, or will the State decide that it is sovereign and stand strong? My bet is that the Democrats will cave in and let the Feds rule with an iron fist. Now that Deasy is restored to his LAUSD fiefdom, little tyrannies can prosper throughout the state. Teachers, librarians, and students be damned! Full speed ahead with mindless power! Phony PhDs and stealing from construction funds joins trials in basements as the rule of law crumbles before the whims of petty dictators. Little judges will hold little show trials as the money gets shoveled to lawyers instead of going to classrooms.


    • J on Oct 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm10/30/2013 2:53 pm

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      Yep, I agree, it all comes down to the money.

  10. Chris Reed on Oct 30, 2013 at 9:19 am10/30/2013 9:19 am

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    I wish this article had provided the context that since an L.A. Superior Court held that the 1971 Stull Act had to be followed, the CTA has pressed for an end to standardized tests. The Stull Act mandates that student performance be part of teacher evaluations. This is a crucial factor in recent events.

  11. KSC on Oct 30, 2013 at 8:36 am10/30/2013 8:36 am

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    I’d say a little over $2 per student is a price I’d be willing to pay for common sense defiance. The cost of compliance far exceeds the cost of implementing the waiver requirements. Stay strong, California!

  12. navigio on Oct 30, 2013 at 8:22 am10/30/2013 8:22 am

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    Isn’t it kind of stupid that we’re being punished for not giving tests but when we give the tests we’re not punished for not meeting the goals? Isnt that kind of backwards?

  13. Jerry Heverly on Oct 30, 2013 at 8:05 am10/30/2013 8:05 am

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    Prediction: when Arne realizes that $15 million is chump change (compare that to the $1 billion allotted for CCSS preparation) he will up the ante. I’d guess they’ll threaten $150 million next week.
    I’m jealous of the “benefits” that the CORE districts will gain from giving CST’s this spring. But why do they want the rest of the state to pay for those same advantages?

  14. SoCal Teacher on Oct 30, 2013 at 5:23 am10/30/2013 5:23 am

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    The real problem in California is that few schools have the technology to administer the test. Additionally, few children are tech saavy enough to take the test online. This is especially true in the elementary schools.

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