State Board executive director optimistic conflict with feds over testing can be resolved

(Updated to include further comments from the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.) 

Despite a threatening letter last week from an assistant secretary of the federal Department of Education, the executive director of the State Board of Education is expressing confidence that the state will reach an agreement over standardized testing next spring to avoid tens of millions of dollars in federal penalties.

“I remain optimistic we can resolve this,” Karen Stapf Walters said on Friday. “They feel the same.”

Photo courtesy of therogerbacon.

Photo courtesy of therogerbacon.

They – specifically Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle – haven’t appeared equally sanguine, at least publicly. In her letter to state officials, which was released last week, Delisle said California would face substantial sanctions if it follows a new state law and fails to test every student in reading and math in grades 3 though 8 and grade 11 next year. Delisle said the California Department of Education stands to lose federal money used to administer Title I funding for disadvantaged students and to administer federally required tests. That’s estimated to be about $45 million, though the California Department of Education would not confirm that amount. And Delisle escalated the conflict by suggesting that some of the $3.5 billion that districts receive in Title I money for services for low-income and disabled students could be in jeopardy as well.

Stapf Walters and State Board President Michael Kirst said they doubted the federal government would withhold Title I money to high-needs children over the conflict with the state, and Stapf Walters said she was puzzled by Delisle’s letters, since she and Delisle have had ongoing discussions over several options that the state has suggested to resolve the conflict. So far, though, federal officials have not approved any of them.

The state is in a bind because California, alone among the 50 states, so far has rejected the two testing options that the federal Department of Education has offered states for next spring. States can continue to offer English language arts and math tests based on their state standards – a fundamental requirement of receiving Title I money. Or, if they obtain a one-year waiver, some of their districts – or potentially a whole state – could offer the field or practice test on the Common Core standards that two consortiums  of states are preparing. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is permitting the latter option out of recognition that the consortiums need results from the field test – essentially a test of the test – in order to create valid Common Core assessments for states to introduce in the spring of 2015.

In passing Assembly Bill 484, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last month, the Legislature discontinued the pen-and-paper tests on state standards in both English language arts and math. Instead, AB 484 requires all districts to offer a computer-based test in either one subject or the other – but not both – in grades 3 thorugh 8 and grade 11. State Deputy Superintendent Debra Sigman has said that the state wants districts to get the benefit of a trial run with computer-administered tests but is worried about overtaxing their systems by forcing them to do both tests. Districts that don’t have the computing capacity by next spring to offer the field test wouldn’t have to – another point of contention with the federal government. It’s not clear what percentage of districts would be in that position.

Whatever compromise can be worked out won’t involve continuing with the old California Standards Tests. Those are history, Stapf Walters said. The Legislature, with AB 484, agreed with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the State Board that teachers and districts need to focus on the new Common Core standards and shouldn’t be distracted by testing students on old state standards. One complication is that the field test for Common Core will not produce valid scores for individual students or for schools for accountability purposes. A field test is not designed with that intention, said Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which includes California as a member. Without valid test results for schools, the State Board has the option of suspending the Academic Performance Index or API, the chief measure of a school’s academic performance, for 2013-14.

There are a couple of possible alternatives to field tests in both English language arts and math. One is to offer students a full-blown field test in one subject and a smaller-scale computer-based practice test in the other. The Smarter Balanced consortium already has practice items on its web site and is scheduled to post a more extensive version in February, Stapf Walters said. It’s not a secure test – students and teachers know what the questions will be – but it does show them the types of questions that will be asked in 2015.

Another option is to offer a paper-and-pencil test to students in the subject not given by computer. Smarter Balanced is planning to offer a secure paper-and-pencil version of the field test to a limited sample of students nationwide. When the official tests are introduced in spring 2015, districts will have the option of offering a paper-and-pencil Smarter Balanced test for three years; it will be a challenge, however, to compare scores of students in those districts with scores from computer-based tests (see article explaining the issue in Education Week). Update: Willhoft of Smarter Balanced said today that the test consortium will restrict the paper-and-pencil version to the small number of schools selected for the field field test  and would not open it up further for  widespread use.  To do otherwise, he wrote in an email, could compromise the security of test questions that could be used in the future. Smarter Balanced would have to be in charge of administering and retrieving  the booklets – adding unanticipated complications and expense for the consortium. 

At this point, Duncan hasn’t granted a waiver for the field test to any state. State applications are due Nov. 22. So far, Montana is the only  state that has said it would be seeking a statewide waiver for field tests in both subjects for all students. Most states would likely be seeking the field test waiver for only 10 to 20 percent of schools or districts, and administering state tests for the majority of students. Some of these states have created hybrid versions of state tests that are aligned with Common Core. California has not done so.

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

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11 Responses to “State Board executive director optimistic conflict with feds over testing can be resolved”

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  1. Doug McRae on Dec 4, 2013 at 2:48 pm12/4/2013 2:48 pm

    • 000


    EL reclassification is only one of 40 or more cases where CST information is suggested or mandated, by statute or regulation, for which there has been very little guidance from Sacto leadership how to handle the absence of CST data in 2014 [and likely additional years until new Smarter Balanced data is sufficiently valid and reliable to be used to replace CST data]. When your question was asked at a CDE forum about six weeks ago, my recollection is the answer was that CST data is not mandated for EL reclassification, that local districts could use local district data as part of EL reclassification decisions, in other words that EL reclassification was not strictly dependent on CST results. My recollection of the entire EL reclassification guidance from 10-12 years ago is that local districts were given a fair amount of leeway in making such determinations, that neither CELDT nor STAR CST data was to be a hard baked sole determinant for EL reclassifications, and that teacher and/or parent recommendations are also part of the process. The bottom line is that use of CST data for EL reclassification could be either up-played or down-played by folks in the chain of guidance that stretches from DC to local districts, and with the absence of CST data it was down-played by Sacto level folks after CST data was flushed from the statewide assessment system in early October.


    • navigio on Dec 4, 2013 at 5:02 pm12/4/2013 5:02 pm

      • 000

      Thanks Doug. Although that somewhat makes sense, it also means that our LTEL problem is solely a function of district policies rather than state mandates. That’s very surprising; and even disturbing.

      • Manuel on Dec 4, 2013 at 10:39 pm12/4/2013 10:39 pm

        • 000

        Ah, but the wrinkle always has been that districts tend to “play it safe” and won’t use their own judgment when it comes to making these decisions. They simply point the finger to the state and say that their hands are tied.

        For instance, if you were to take your kid to the local public school and answered that something other than English is used more than 50% of the time in your home, your child will be classified as EL. And it will be very difficult to make them change their mind unless the kid shows stellar response in English tests.

        LAUSD is notorious for doing this as well as using the CELDT as the benchmark for all reclassification decisions. It is indeed a kingdom unto itself.

        • navigio on Dec 5, 2013 at 7:41 am12/5/2013 7:41 am

          • 000

          Why wouldnt they? They get extra funding for those students as long as they are classified that way. I was surprised when jerry removed the time limit on EL classification-based funding in his LCFF proposal.

  2. navigio on Dec 1, 2013 at 10:20 pm12/1/2013 10:20 pm

    • 000

    Out of curiosity, since EL reclassification was dependent on a CST result, how will we be doing reclassification this year?

  3. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) on Nov 4, 2013 at 11:50 pm11/4/2013 11:50 pm

    • 000

    “tens of millions”?

    This in a state where they refer to the Lottery money – 1.3 BILLION – as “peanuts.”

    AND in a state that still refuses to mandate school librarians.

    We are a LONG way from addressing real education needs in CA — where we march in tune to Common Core — which is only TWO subjects.


    • John Fensterwald on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm11/5/2013 2:21 pm

      • 000

      Yes, it may be all relative, Richard, but for a state Department of Education that is dependent on federal funding to pay its bills and will have to turn to the Legislature and Gov. Brown to fill in the gap, tens of millions could make quite a difference.

  4. Doug McRae on Nov 4, 2013 at 8:15 am11/4/2013 8:15 am

    • 000

    The EdWeek article linked at the bottom of the post points to Smarter Balanced data that only 45 percent of California districts are capable of giving tests online, I think the most credible data on tech readiness now available. That data points to the importance of providing a solid paper and pencil alternative to Smarter Balanced’s computer-adaptive tests when the final computerized tests become available spring 2015. Also, the presence of a secure Smarter Balanced p/p field test in 2014 provides the potential, with an appropriate sampling design, to use data from the p/p field test to obtain final or official scales and standards-setting (i.e., cut scores) during the summer of 2014, which would permit generating meaningful results (i.e., basic, proficient, advanced) from 2014 p/p field test data collection, and possibly earlier availability of meaninful results from the 2015 Smarter Balanced computerized tests. While these test development design efficiences need to be pursued, especially to address the issue of federal testing requirements per the ED warning letter last week, they will not change the essential fact that CA will not be instructionally ready for common core statewide assessments, i.e., to generate instructionally valid test scores, until spring 2016 for Math and spring 2017 for E/LA.


    • John Fensterwald on Nov 4, 2013 at 9:14 am11/4/2013 9:14 am

      • 000

      Doug: I’ve been told that the 45 percent figure was based on the small percentage of districts that responded to Smarter Balanced’s detailed survey on technology readiness. I have not yet been able to verify the return rate from Smarter Balanced.

      • Doug McRae on Nov 4, 2013 at 10:02 am11/4/2013 10:02 am

        • 000

        John: Provided that small percentage is a relatively random sample, the Smarter Balanced data on CA tech readiness is still more credible data than the softer subjective data from the CDE’s Tech Preparedness Survey (see October Info Memoes on SBE website) or the SCOE powerpoint data that you had in your Oct 25 post on CA tech readiness.

        • el on Nov 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm11/4/2013 9:49 pm

          • 000

          My guess is that even the survey data isn’t all that accurate – that most districts (a) don’t have the technical expertise to make an accurate determination as to technology readiness and that (b) humorous and disconcerting anecdotes of abject failure will abound. And (c) that is exactly why it’s best if everyone makes the attempt before anyone expects the data to count.

          That is, I think the only rational expectation of this rollout of Smarter Balanced tests is “fiasco” … and I don’t even mean that in a negative way. It’s a total change for districts far outside of their core competencies and it will be a completely untested gigantic software rollout that is time sensitive with big security concerns. I think it’s best that we assume and prepare for ‘fiasco’ and enjoy the gigantic teachable moment that it will be, disruption that will quite significantly change the way we do testing and education.

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