California will administer new pilot science test despite U.S. Department of Education ruling

January 29, 2017

In less than two months, California will begin giving public school students a pilot version of an online test based on new science standards – one of the first states to do so in the United States.

About 17 states are in various stages of rolling out assessments based on the new Next Generation Science Standards, which emerged after educational leaders nationwide met in 2010 and pushed for rewriting a science curriculum that had not been changed since the late 1990s. Yet none of those states have progressed as far as California in developing a pilot version based on the standards that California will administer to students in the 5th, 8th and 10th grade. 

However, when some districts begin administering the online pilot tests on March 20, California will effectively be in violation of a ruling issued by the U.S. Department of Education two days before President Barack Obama left office. That ruling rejected the state’s request to waive having to administer the outdated paper and pencil California Standards Tests in science, which are based on the old standards introduced in 1998.

California sought a waiver saying that if it administered the old tests as well as the new pilot tests, students would in effect be taking two tests.

The state is planning to administer a pilot version this spring of a new California Science Test, or CAST, a field test of the complete test next year, and then the fully operational test the following year. The state used the same process to develop and implement the Smarter Balanced tests that are aligned with the Common Core standards in English and math and that students are taking in California schools each spring.

The last administrative ruling in the seven-month long battle over administering one or two science tests occurred on Jan. 18. That’s when Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr., wrote in a letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst that the pilot test wasn’t acceptable on its own.

Whalen wrote in her ruling that she was “deeply concerned” about the challenging timeline and lack of transparency of science testing data during California’s transition from online pilot testing to fully operational tests set for the 2018-19 school year.

The pilot tests would not measure the “full depth and breadth of the state’s academic new content standards in science because each student will receive only a sample of assessment items during the pilot phase,” she said. Additionally, said Whalen, the state would not have “individual student or school-level achievement results across districts in the state to report to the public.”

However, state education leaders disagreed with her view, and plan to ignore Whalen’s order. They are adamant that they will only administer the new pilot test, saying this was consistent with President Obama’s stated declaration to reduce unnecessary testing in schools.

Because of the change in administrations since Whalen’s finding, it is now unclear what the consequences will be for California, and whether the U.S. Department of Education will see things the same way under President Donald Trump’s new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, assuming she is confirmed by the Senate.

“As in all cases where a state fails to comply with the requirements of the (U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act), there are many possible enforcement actions and remedies available to be applied by the department, including the withholding of funds,” said Jessica Allen, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Education, in a prepared statement issued a few days before Obama left office.

Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association, a trade group representing science teachers to the state Legislature, said she was “disappointed” in Whalen’s final ruling “but not surprised.”

“We have the full trust that California’s plan to transition to new science assessments is the best way forward for our state’s students, teachers and schools,” Sawko said.

Meanwhile, with the changeover in administrations from Obama to Trump on Jan. 20, and federal lawmaker concerns emerging over DeVos as education secretary, some confusion has cropped up in California education circles over whether the older California Standards Test may be administered alongside the new test.

“At this time, it is premature to talk about next steps,” Elaine Quesinberry, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, said this week about California’s intent to ignore the administrative ruling. “California just received the response,” she said.

“At this time, it is premature to talk about next steps,” Elaine Quesinberry, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, said this week about California’s intent to ignore the administrative ruling.

For now, state education leaders are not commenting on what California might do, and have declined requests to be interviewed. Both Torlakson and Kirst turned down separate requests for an interview to explain why the state objects to the ruling.

“We’ve said everything we can and know about the situation for the time,” said Peter Tira, a spokesman with the state’s education department.

“It would be pure speculation to think about what possibilities would happen,” said Sawko of possible penalties should the federal government impose a punishment. “We are moving forward with the pilot,” she said, suggesting that the federal government might respond only if California actually refuses to administer the old test, and administers the new test in its place. “If there were to be enforcement actions (by the U.S.) it would be at the time that the state does not meet its reporting requirements.”

Keric Ashley, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education, during a Jan. 6 final administrative hearing on the matter, suggested to Whalen that she permit California to proceed with its online testing plan on a year-by-year basis, and weigh how things were going annually before proceeding to the next year of assessments. This closely monitored timeline proposal would transpire over the three-year period for rolling out the new science assessments in California. The U.S. could intervene at any step in the timeline with the paper-based tests if it believed things weren’t running smoothly, Ashley suggested.

Either way, Sawko said she has told her group’s members to “prepare for the pilot” and not worry about the old California Standards Test. “Continue with your plans to help kids. If they need help dropping and dragging things (on the computer) then practice with them. That’s it.”

The online assessments this spring are expected to last about an hour for 12-15 questions, Sawko said. There also is a brief survey at the end of the test that asks the students about their experience with the assessment.

She said her group has handled a few queries from school district administrators expressing confusion over whether the old science test was going to be administered this spring as well. “There’s been a little chatter at the school sites,” Sawko said. “But we’ve been very clear about this. We go back and point to statements made by the CDE (California Department of Education) and letters sent out to districts, to get ready for the pilot,” she said.

Brett Geithman, assistant superintendent of educational services with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, said his district has received clear instructions from the Los Angeles County Office of Education to plan for a new pilot test only.

“We’ve had teachers ask about it,” Geithman said. “Clearly the decision at the federal level has been a setback, but we continue to get the message out to prepare for this new test – not the old one.”

Manhattan Beach Unified plans to administer its pilot test in late April or early May, which comes at the same time as its Smarter Balanced testing, also referred to as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. The Smarter Balanced tests are intended to reflect how well students meet new Common Core academic standards. These online tests ask students to write clearly, think critically, and solve complex problems, just as they will need to do in college and on the job.

About 1,500 of the district’s 6,700 K-12 students will take the new pilot test in 5th and 8th grades, and one grade in high school, Geithman said.

Jan Robertson, a teacher on special assignment, is helping to roll out the Next Generation Science Standards to 30,000 students in the Mt. Diablo Unified District.

“We are not giving the CST,” or old California Standards Test, Robertson said. “The state won’t make us take two tests. But some of the smaller districts might not know this, especially if they don’t have a science person administering their NGSS program.”

“I’ve been feeling until now that we wouldn’t take the CST test. The (Contra Costa) county office of education has told us we are not giving the test, and I’ve heard it so many times. But now my faith has been shaken a little bit with the Trump administration. He is dismantling everything I worked towards, like teaching climate change,” said Robertson in reference to media reports this week that Trump instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, and erase references to Obama’s climate change initiatives, which had links to scientific global warming research, as well as detailed data on emissions.

“The tests seem like peanuts in comparison to some of these other issues,” Robertson said.

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