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

October 30, 2013
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 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.  

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