Brown signs bill delaying exams despite Duncan’s threat

October 2, 2013

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With threats of federal repercussions waylaid by the government shutdown, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed a bill that suspends most standardized tests and replaces them with a no-stakes field test aligned to the new Common Core standards.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan previously threatened to withhold some federal funding if the state passed Assembly Bill 484. The bill, backed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, replaces most pencil-and-paper standardized tests scheduled for next spring with the computerized Common Core field test in math and English language arts for grades 3 through 8 and 11. Half of the students will take math, and half will take English.

“This is one of the most important and revolutionary changes to education policy,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, in a written statement. She said the new law will “better prepare students and teachers for better assessments that reflect the real world knowledge needed for young people to succeed in college and careers.”

David Rattray, head of education at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the bill, said it’s common sense for California to transition to a new testing program for Common Core that values problem solving over rote memorization. “We know that this is what the business community needs in order to have a trained and skilled workforce that will allow us to compete in a global market,” Rattray said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who called for testing suspension in a department report released in January, applauded Brown.

“Faced with the choice of preparing California’s children for the future or continuing to cling to outdated policies of the past, our state’s leaders worked together and made the right choice for our students,” Torlakson said in a news release. “These new assessments represent a challenge for our education system—but a lifetime of opportunity for students. As a teacher, I’m thrilled to see our state and our schools once again leading the way.”

However, Duncan said the new state law violates No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal education law that the secretary himself has said is flawed.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Because California is one of eight states without a waiver from some provisions of the federal education law, the state is still bound by the law’s testing requirements. In order to implement the changes under AB 484 and avoid double-testing students, the state will have to seek a separate waiver from the federal government. Last month, as EdSource Today reported, the Secretary warned California he would deny the double-testing waiver and could withhold federal funding that California receives for administering state standardized tests. The state received $30.2 million last year for this, according to the state Department of Education.

In a statement released last month, Duncan said while he agrees that double-testing students isn’t in their best interest, he can’t, in good conscience, approve a request “to not measure the achievement of millions of students this year.”

“If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the Department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state,” Duncan said.

A handful of school district superintendents reportedly expressed concern about potentially losing that money, but there’s been no widespread alarm.

David Heckler, a director at the education consulting company School Services of California, said that issue hasn’t come up in his frequent conversations with school districts. More pressing right now is what will happen if the federal shutdown doesn’t end soon.

“I’m sure that members have those concerns,” Heckler said, “I think right now all eyes are focused on the federal shutdown and their education funding that comes from the federal government.”

The federal government sent more than $4.9 billion to California’s unified school districts in 2011-12, the most recent data available, making up about 11 percent of an average unified district’s budget.

It’s not known if Duncan will follow through with the penalties. The government shutdown left the phones unstaffed in the Department of Education’s press office and policy experts were furloughed. A department spokesperson did respond to an email inquiry, writing, “Recapping the Secretary’s position from before, he shares the concerns that California’s business community had with the bill. This goes against the NCLB requirement to test all students in the specified grades along with our flexibility on double testing.”

Gov. Brown, who said a few weeks ago that he had no intention of backing down on AB 484, had no further comments after signing the bill. “We’ve said about all we’re going to say on this issue for now,” a Brown spokesman said in an email.

Hours after the bill became law, the state department of education went live with its spring 2014 Smarter Balanced field test website, reporting that testing will take place between March 18 and June 6, 2014. Details of how the field testing will work are still being figured out, said Deputy State Superintendent Deb Sigman.

The process is complicated because about 680,000 of the students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 participating in the overall field test will be preselected to participate in a scientific sample, which will be combined with results from the other two dozen states in the Smarter Balanced consortium and used to evaluate the quality of the questions. That selection process must reflect all demographic groups and achievement levels.

The purpose of the field test itself is confusing. Whether they’re taking the math or English language arts section, students in the same grade will not have the same exam because the purpose of the field test is to evaluate the quality of the questions, and there are more than 20,000 of them.

“The idea is to collect all of this data to make sure we build a test that’s valid and reliable,” Sigman said. “We’ve got people madly working on this right now. I expect that we’ll have the plan within the next three or four months.”

Critics have said that curtailing California’s current standardized testing program will disrupt the state’s ability to track student progress because the field test is not designed to track that level of achievement.

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