Saturday, August 24, 2013

TO TEST OR NOT TO TEST?: Last-minute negotiations focus on bill to replace STAR system

By Tom Chorneau, SI&A Cabinet Report –

Friday, August 23, 2013  ::  Three months ago, as the final details of the 2013-14 state budget were being negotiated, consensus between Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders seemed to also coalesce around how and when schools would move to a new student performance testing system based on common national standards.

Today, key details over how California would terminate the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, system and launch new computer-adaptive assessments based on the Common Core appear to be under serious discussion by the Brown administration, state schools chief Tom Torlakson and legislative leaders.

AB 484, the legislative vehicle for implementing the transition, is stalled in the Senate’s Appropriation Committee as amendments to the bill are considered. Sources close to the conversation say the administration is concerned about the scope of the bill and has expressed interest in narrowing the number of changes it would execute.

There appears still to be strong support among stakeholders to follow through with the biggest parts of the transition plan – that is, to suspend the STAR program as of July of this year and to prepare for administering the new assessments  in the spring of 2015.

A plan to also suspend tests now  given to newly-arrived Spanish-speaking students appears to be one of the issues under review. There’s also the question of how the state’s high school exit exam would be integrated into the new program.

Cost is also a major issue in the talks. AB 484, by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, would delegate authority to the California Department of Education to enter into contracts for the new testing system that is still under development. The final price of the program would be set by members of the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

An initial cost estimate released last month said that buying and installing a new system of K-12 student assessments aligned to the new standards will likely cost California $67 million.

For that price, the state would receive test developer Smarter Balanced’s “complete system,” which includes several types of assessments as well as a digital library – all of which is proposed in key legislation that would authorize the transition to the new assessments.

It is unclear if the conversations over amending the bill have developed any serious complications – principals engaged in the talks have only confirmed that negotiations are taking place.

Mike Kirst, one of the governor’s key education advisers and president of the California State Board of Education, said only that “the administration is still discussing options with the author, so it is not appropriate to talk now.”

A spokeswoman for Bonilla also said their office is “working on the bill with the governor.”

It comes as something of a surprise that key components of the bill were not worked out sooner. A comprehensive plan for transitioning to the new Smarter Balanced testing was issued by Torlakson’s office in January with parts of the plan incorporated into the Bonilla bill in the spring.

Lawmakers in May set aside rival legislation that would have given schools at least until 2016 to make the transition.

Still, the stakes are enormous. This year’s budget set aside is $1.25 billion for Common Core expenses – including teacher training, new instructional materials and technology needs.

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