(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.”
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.