Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource (2014)
The California Department of Education wants to begin phasing in online tests for new science standards this spring, in lieu of taking paper-and-pencil tests based on old standards.

With two days remaining before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, the U.S. Department of Education has rejected California’s request to begin administering online tests this spring based on new science standards, in lieu of a test based on standards established in 1998.

The state’s final administrative appeal following a six-months-long battle over science testing in California was denied Wednesday in a Jan. 18 letter sent by Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr., to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst.

Whalen wrote that she made her ruling based on concerns about the 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.

“I remain deeply concerned about the (California Department of Education’s) transition plan and timeline,” Whalen wrote.

The pilot tests will 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 won’t have “individual student or school-level achievement results across districts in the state to report to the public.”

It’s unclear whether Whalen’s decision can be undone by King’s successor, presumably Betsy DeVos, who is Trump’s nominee to become the next U.S. education secretary. DeVos underwent a contentious hearing on her nomination that broke along party lines before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday.

Jessica Allen, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Education, did not offer any insights as to DeVos’ future role in this matter.

“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 Allen, who did not elaborate.

State education officials say they plan to begin phasing in the test this spring, regardless of the federal ruling. A longer field test of the pilot would be administered the following spring. “We are moving full speed ahead. Nothing has changed on our plans,” said Peter Tira, a California Department of Education spokesman.

“We thank them (U.S. Education Department) for reviewing our waiver and appeal. We’re disappointed by the decision – but not surprised. We are reviewing our options and next steps, but we will continue to move forward in the best interests of the students of California,” Tira said.

“There is an attitude that this is a process and we will come to an agreement. That’s where our energy is focused,” said Tira, who added that his agency also did not know whether Whalen’s decision could be undone by DeVos if she is confirmed.

“There is an attitude that this is a process and we will come to an agreement. That’s where our energy is focused,” said Peter Tira, a California Department of Education spokesman.

Whalen’s Wednesday ruling is the latest in a debate over the merits of administering an online assessment based on the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by California in 2013. It comes following a brief Jan. 6 hearing during which Keric Ashley, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education, spoke from Sacramento on behalf of the department during an administrative hearing held via a video conference call with Whalen, who spoke from Washington, D.C.

California’s battle began in June, when it sought a federal waiver from administering the paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice California Standards Test that has been used in the state since 1998. That test, based on older science standards, was last administered to 5th-, 8th- and 10th-graders over a year ago.

The U.S. Department of Education, however, rejected California’s waiver request in September, saying the state had not demonstrated that piloting the new tests would advance student achievement or do a better job of reporting on how well students performed in science. The state rejected that argument and filed an appeal on Nov. 29.

In a Dec. 13 letter, Whalen responded to the appeal, stating that California must administer the old tests. She wrote that the pilot tests would not measure the “full depth” of the state’s academic content in science.

The No Child Left Behind law, which is still in place during the current school year, and its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, require states to administer science tests to 5th- and 8th-graders and once in high school.

In her ruling Wednesday, Whalen maintained that the two federal education laws require local school districts to publish the results of those tests. If they aren’t published – or even administered for that matter – then the state would have no way of knowing how to improve student achievement or provide transparency in reporting results to parents and the public, she wrote.

The federal government has not stated what penalties California might face if it does not move forward with the old California Standards Tests this spring.

This isn’t the first time that California and federal officials have clashed over testing issues.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold California’s federal Title I funding for low-income children when the state planned to phase in testing based on the Common Core standards in English and math without the federal government’s approval. Federal officials eventually granted the state a waiver from existing federal education laws so it could administer a Smarter Balanced field test based on Common Core standards instead of the previous standardized tests.

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