California appeals to federal officials to administer one statewide science test, not two

November 30, 2016

With less than two months before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, California education officials this week have filed an appeal to the U.S Department of Education, seeking to administer one statewide standardized test in science this spring, a pilot test based on new standards known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

The appeal continues to pit the state against the federal education department, which told California officials in September to administer a second test, a decades-old science exam, even while the state begins to roll out the new pilot test. Last month, Jessica Barr, an administrator in the California Department of Education’s Assessment Development and Administration Division, said California is forging ahead with plans to replace the old test with the pilot after federal officials rejected that proposal. The state submitted its formal appeal in a Nov. 29 letter to U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. and Ann Whalen, senior adviser to the secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The department received California’s letter regarding its science assessment waiver and is carefully reviewing it before responding to the state,” Jessica Allen, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, said Wednesday.

Three nonprofit education advocacy groups – California Science Teachers Association, Children Now and The Education Trust–West – submitted letters in support of the state’s appeal. The state’s letter was signed by Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, and Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education.

Torlakson and Kirst said in their appeal that they want to avoid an “unduly burdensome double testing situation for eligible students.” They asked to suspend the current multiple-choice, paper-and-pencil science assessments that are based on outdated standards from 1998 and are “no longer supported by daily classroom instruction.”

The officials also asked to allow California to suspend temporarily the required reporting of individual student scores for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years for the assessment based on the new science standards, and through the 2018-19 school year for the alternate science assessment, which is the test for special education students. During the pilot and field testing stage, state officials said they would not report student scores or school data to parents, educators or the public because the scores would not be statistically valid. However, participation rates would be reported during this transition period.

“California’s transition plan to administer (NGSS)-aligned assessments provides an efficient and effective transition to support and inform instruction focused on these rigorous standards,” the officials wrote. They also cited the state board’s approval in November of a new science framework based on NGSS standards for kindergarten through 12th grade, which will “further this instructional shift, as the framework provides a roadmap for educators on how to teach the new science standards.”

California officials filed an initial request on June 2 seeking a waiver from the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 that would allow them to replace the old science test with the pilot test. California has been developing two tests linked to NGSS: the California Science Test , or CAST, for most students and the California Alternate Assessment for Science, or CAA for Science, for special education students.

In a Sept. 30 letter, the U.S. Department of Education rejected the waiver request, saying California has not demonstrated that piloting the new tests would advance student achievement or do a better job reporting on school performance.

But the State Board of Education laid out a timeline for the NGSS-linked science tests in March. The pilot tests are scheduled to be administered this spring to students in 5th, 8th and one high school grade.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, California must administer a science test in those grades. That law will be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which also requires that students in those grades be tested in science each spring.

This isn’t the first time that California has challenged the federal government about its testing requirements.

In 2014, as California began phasing in the Common Core standards in English and math, the U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver from the part of No Child Left Behind that required annual testing of children in those subjects in grades 3-8 and grade 11. California officials sought the waiver in order to give students a Smarter Balanced field test, which was aligned with the Common Core, instead of older tests based on previous standards.

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