Torlakson seeks testing waiver to avoid conflict with feds

November 21, 2013

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Students will take computerized field tests aligned to Common Core standards in math and English next year, state officials announced. Credit: EdSource file photo

Students will take computerized field tests aligned to Common Core standards in math and English next year, state officials announced. Credit: EdSource file photo

Faced with potentially tens of millions of dollars in fines, the state Department of Education has headed off a confrontation with the federal government over standardized testing.**

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced Thursday that he would require school districts to offer the Common Core practice tests, created by the Smarter Balanced states’ consortium, in both math and English language arts next spring. A new law changing the state’s standardized testing program, Assembly Bill 484, which Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown supported and that sparked a dispute with the federal government, required only that students be given one of the assessments, although it didn’t explicitly prevent Torlakson from offering both tests.

The state’s one-test policy was at odds with long-standing federal law, that all students in for grades 3 to 8 and grade 11 be tested annually in both subjects. And it prompted an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to warn state officials last month that the feds might withhold $45 million to the state Department of Education, plus potentially larger amounts in federal Title I dollars for low-income and special education students.

Torlakson’s carefully worded news release makes no mention of the conflict with the federal government or a concern over districts’ capacity to administer computer tests in both subjects next spring. Deputy State Superintendent Deb Sigman had repeatedly stated over the past month that that districts would get as much benefit from offering one field test as from offering both. And she said that the state was worried about overloading districts as they move from state tests, using paper and pencil, to computer-administered Common Core assessments.

“This move to up-to-date new assessments marks a major step forward in California’s work to ensure that every student graduates equipped to succeed in college and careers,” Torlakson said. “These field tests simply make good sense, and expanding them to include both subjects for most students makes even better sense – in contrast to ‘double testing’ students, which makes little sense at all.”

There’s no guarantee that the state’s revised policy will satisfy the feds. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he would consider allowing states to substitute the Common Core field test in spring 2014 for the annual tests in state standards for at least some students. But states would have to apply for a waiver from double testing students to do this. The deadline to apply is Friday – Nov. 22 – and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Torlakson submitted the waiver request  and letter to U.S. Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle on Thursday.

In an interview, Chief Deputy State Superintendent Richard Zeiger said that the state will offer a shorter form of both the math and English language arts field tests that together take 3½ hours – no longer than the full field test in either subject. As a result, it should impose no further burdens on school districts’ capacity or time. And it will be done within the existing budget, he said.

“We managed to strike the appropriate balance here,” he said.

Zeiger said that the state doesn’t know if the shorter tests will satisfy the federal government’s requirements, but he hopes that they will. The state did not negotiate its proposal with federal officials, he said.

A few states have indicated that they would seek a statewide waiver for all students. But most plan to give one of the Common Core field tests to 10 to 20 percent of their students and to continue giving some form of state tests to the rest.

Torlakson and the State Board of Education took the position that the transition to the Common Core standards required a clean break from tests under the old state standards, so that teachers and districts could concentrate on preparing for the new assessments and Common Core. Consistent with that, AB 484 terminated nearly all California Standards Tests, effective Jan. 1. Official Common Core tests will debut in the spring of 2015.

A field test is essentially a test of a test – a method to screen questions and determine their level of difficulty, a necessary step before rolling out the official assessment. Smarter Balanced will not release the results, because a field test cannot produce valid scores for measuring individual student or school achievement.

Organizations representing teachers, administrators and school boards supported AB 484 and Torlakson’s one practice test proposal. Torlakson and state officials were miffed when the eight districts that formed the California Office to Reform Education called on Duncan to demand that the state give districts both the math and English language arts tests.

In a statement on behalf of CORE on Thursday, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said, “We applaud Superintendent Torlakson and President Kirst’s announcement as we have consistently advocated throughout this process for ensuing all youth have access to the field test. More than anything else, schools and districts are hungry for information as we undertake this unprecedented implementation.”

**This story has been updated.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him or 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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