Duel between California and Obama administration over education continues

October 13, 2016

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a federal waiver from having to administer the California Standards Tests in science, a multiple choice test based on outdated science standards adopted nearly two decades ago.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The Obama administration has itself ruled that some of the most onerous provisions of the NCLB law are no longer in effect even though the law itself is still technically on the books.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In lieu of administering the old, outdated test, California wants to administer a pilot version of the new science test this spring, the field test the following year, and the fully operational test the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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