The long-running battle between California and the federal government over the direction of state education policy continues, despite passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law that delegates far more decision-making powers to local school districts than its much-maligned predecessor, the No Child Left Behind law.

In an unexpected response two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education rejected California’s application for a federal waiver from having to administer the California Standards Tests in science, a multiple choice test based on outdated science standards adopted nearly two decades ago.

What makes the latest run-in with the administration so head-scratching is that it comes in the waning months of the Obama administration — over a relatively small piece of a student’s standardized testing regimen, at least compared to the Smarter Balanced math and English tests aligned with the Common Core standards. 

Under the No Child Left Behind law, as well as the Every Student Succeeds Act replacing it, states are required to administer a science test each year to 5th- and 8th-graders, and once to high school students, and to report the scores on those tests.

But the new federal law, referred to in the education policy vernacular as ESSA, only goes into effect in the 2017–18 school year. California and the nation are now in a transitional period between NCLB and the new law.

The Obama administration has itself ruled that some of the most onerous provisions of the NCLB law are no longer in effect even though the law itself is still technically on the books.

Complicating matters is that the science testing requirement comes at a time when science instruction, and new tests to assess student progress, are in a transitional period.

That’s because California, along with 17 other states, has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards and is developing a new test aligned with the standards.

Developing a new assessment, however, is a massive, multi-year task.

In lieu of administering the old, outdated test, California wants to administer a pilot version of the new science test this spring, the field test the following year, and the fully operational test the year after that. It is essentially the same procedure it used in adopting the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests.

But in a long letter denying its waiver bid, a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Jr. told California that it still has to administer the old science tests.

The state’s plan to administer pilot tests to all students, wrote King’s adviser Ann Whalen, won’t “advance student achievement or maintain or improve transparency in reporting to parents and the public on student achievement and school performance.”

The administration objects to the fact that California doesn’t plan to publish the scores on the new pilot test. But most test experts agree it’s inappropriate to judge school performance and provide parents with scores on early versions of tests, whose primary purpose is to determine which questions are usable.

Whalen proposed in her letter that California consider embedding the new test items aligned with the new standards in the old test. She also suggested that California abandon its plan to give the pilot test to all students in the 5th, 8th and 10th grade, but rather conduct a “small-scale standalone pilot.” It could even consider testing the pilot questions in what she called “cognitive labs.”

But all these options would still require California to give the old California Standards Tests.

“Asking the state to administer an assessment that does not align to the state’s adopted standards does not make sense, nor is it consistent with the Every Student Suceeeds Act,” said Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

She noted that ESSA specifies that assessments “be aligned with challenging state academic standards.” But, she said, the tests the Obama administration wants California to administer are not aligned with the state’s new science standards. 

Even more puzzling is that the Obama administration lost an almost identical battle with California three years ago. Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rejected a similar waiver request from California, insisting that the state continue to administer the California Standards Tests in math and English, rather than field tests of Smarter Balanced assessments aligned with the new Common Core standards.

At the time, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson argued that it made no sense administering tests aligned with standards that teachers were no longer teaching to. “Our goals for 21st century learning and the road ahead are clear,” he said. “We won’t reach them by continuing to look in the rear-view mirror with outdated tests, no matter how it sits with officials in Washington.”

Duncan threatened California with potentially massive fines if it discontinued the old tests, even though the federal government had paid for and had encouraged Common Core states like California to use the new tests.

“Duncan’s agenda was one of stronger state centralization of policy and control over local districts and schools. That came at a point in time when California wanted to go the other direction, with less state control and more local flexibility,” Michael Kirst, Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointee as president of the State Board of Education, told EdSource at the time.

Duncan eventually backed down. “After all these goings on and histrionics for all these months, we ended up where we hoped to be, with a clean waiver,” Kirst told EdSource last year.

California is now back fighting a similar battle, even though the education landscape has changed fundamentally with the passage of the  new federal law.

It also is hard to see how the administration’s position affirms core principles in its much-touted “testing action plan” to reduce the amount of unnecessary testing. And it threatens to complicate California’s efforts to smoothly transition to a much better test aligned to the new science standards.

While other states have mismanaged the implementation of the new Common Core standards and the tests aligned with them, California is going about it in a more systematic and deliberate fashion and wants to take a similar approach with the new science assessments.

California’s strategy appears to be working. Unlike in many other states, there has been very little opposition to the Common Core standards in California, or to the Smarter Balanced tests.

The current disagreement over science testing reflects a deeper tension. Some some advocacy and civil rights groups allege that if states aren’t required to test students and publish their scores, schools won’t be held accountable for student improvement, especially for historically underperforming subgroups.

But in this case, California is not opposing tests — just seeking to abandon an old test for the next two years while it phases in a new and better one.

In its letter to California denying the waiver, the Obama administration said that it shares California’s goal of “preserving classroom time for learning and improving the quality and rigor of the assessments our students are taking.”

To that end, California has until Dec. 1 to resubmit a revised waiver request, and the California Department of Education is likely to do so.

This latest stand-off shows that the tense relationship between Washington and Sacramento as to who shapes the state’s education policies, including what tests to administer, is not yet a thing of the past. It may take a new secretary of education, appointed by the next president, to get beyond it. 

 

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  1. Jonathan Raymond 2 years ago2 years ago

    Perhaps Secretary King and his advisors should come and visit Sacramento to learn first-hand about the emerging “California Way.” It would be a nice chance to learn from groups of policy makers, educators, children and families how working together can set a new direction for educating and developing the whole child – public education’s new North Star.

  2. John B Sargent 2 years ago2 years ago

    Why are so many Americans and Europeans angry with national bureaucracies? This issue over testing is a prime example of bureaucrats filling their time with make waste rules and regulations that totally lack common sense. Being stupid is not a justification for Washington to interfere with changes in curriculum, instruction, and testing that Congress passed and California is valiantly implementing. Old testing for testing sake's is a waste of taxpayers' money and will only delay … Read More

    Why are so many Americans and Europeans angry with national bureaucracies? This issue over testing is a prime example of bureaucrats filling their time with make waste rules and regulations that totally lack common sense. Being stupid is not a justification for Washington to interfere with changes in curriculum, instruction, and testing that Congress passed and California is valiantly implementing. Old testing for testing sake’s is a waste of taxpayers’ money and will only delay the transition to new testing aligned with the new curriculum and instruction that most agree are appropriate changes. Bah! Idiots!

  3. Don 2 years ago2 years ago

    This is what happens when the federal government dictates education policy to the states. What’s so head-scratching about Obama’s federal overreach? This is what the democrats in California bargained for when they elected the current president.

  4. Doug McRae 2 years ago2 years ago

    There is another side to this story, that is, usual and customary practices for states to transition from old tests that need to be replaced to new tests without losing continuity for reporting results to students and parents and other users/reporters of test results. The usual practices start with the reality that new standards for any content area invariably have some overlap with the old standards, and thus the old tests have some test questions that … Read More

    There is another side to this story, that is, usual and customary practices for states to transition from old tests that need to be replaced to new tests without losing continuity for reporting results to students and parents and other users/reporters of test results.

    The usual practices start with the reality that new standards for any content area invariably have some overlap with the old standards, and thus the old tests have some test questions that adequately measure the new standards. It is possible to reduce testing time substantially by using only old test items that measure the new standards, essentially a short form test, to meet the federal reporting requirements with adequate, valid, reliable, fair test scores that address the new content standards at least in part.

    The reduced testing time allows a state to do pilot and field testing of new test questions designed to fully measure the new standards with new varieties and formats for new test questions needed. The pilot and field tests are not early versions of the final tests, but rather are collections of yet-to-be-validated items expressly designed to collect validity data needed to include items in final tests. As such, pilot and field tests do not generate valid, reliable, fair student scores and do not satisfy federal reporting requirements for students or schools or subgroups.

    A typical design for a pilot test would involve only a small fraction of total enrollment in CA for each grade level. California’s NGSS pilot test design involves perhaps 8 samples of students of maybe 500 students each, a total number of students less than 1 percent of enrollment for each grade level. Field tests require more stringent and larger samples, but, given California’s size, good field test designs require no more than 10 to 15 percent of total enrollment. [I’d note that the Smarter Balanced pilot test in 2013 required less than 5 percent of total enrollment for two content areas while its field test in 2014 used only around 15 percent of total enrollment for each grade level for two content areas.] California’s desire to do pilot and field tests with full enrollments is not based on customary pilot and field test development practices but rather it is based on added exposure of new NGSS testing formats. Such exposure can de done in other ways that are more efficient and less costly than census pilot and field tests.

    Finally, California’s request for a 2-year waiver (2017 and 2018) while promising an “operational test” in 2019 is really a request for a 3-year waiver (including 2019) for the federal reporting requirement. The so-called 2019 operational year involves a census administration of validated test questions for the entire range of NCSS content standards, but the results of spring test administrations will have to wait for upwards of six months before threshold scores (cut scores) can be recommended and approved by the State Board as needed for score reports to be issued. This year cannot be credibly be called a “fully operational” year; rather it is the final “benchmark” year to complete all test development components. For the CA’s NGSS assessment timeline, the first “fully operational” year will be 2020, when not only full NGSS tests will be administered but also the scores can be reported in a timely manner following test administration.

    There may well be some “politics” involved in the California request and the U.S. Department of Education denial for a waiver of federal science test reporting requirements. As a Washington, D.C., lobbyist friend frequently told me, Politics Trumps Psychometrics Every Time. My comeback was, Yeah, but Psychometrics has a way of eventually biting Politics in the Tail feathers! [i.e., via flawed test scores] Whatever the outcome of California’s NGSS assessment waiver request, folks need to know there is another side to this story, a side that involves usual and customary test development practices for transitioning from an older set of content standards and assessments to a newer set of content standards and assessments.

    Replies

    • el 2 years ago2 years ago

      I always appreciate it when you weigh in with the down-in-the weeds nuance on situations like this. It seems to me, though, that this transition is special, because it is a transition from a paper test to a computer-administered test. Even the same questions asked on the new media could expect to see some different results, just based on the students' lack of familiarity with the new testing style. This is a reason why I'd be … Read More

      I always appreciate it when you weigh in with the down-in-the weeds nuance on situations like this.

      It seems to me, though, that this transition is special, because it is a transition from a paper test to a computer-administered test. Even the same questions asked on the new media could expect to see some different results, just based on the students’ lack of familiarity with the new testing style. This is a reason why I’d be inclined to grant a waiver in this specific instance, since there is more changing here than just standards or curriculum.

  5. David Cohen 2 years ago2 years ago

    Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Simply reinforcing that the Obama administration can’t get out of its own way on certain education policy matters. It’s hard to believe this isn’t some kind of petty personal grudge, as there’s no logic in the ED position. Their policy directive achieves neither of their stated goals: to advance achievement and promote transparency.