Saturday, November 23, 2013


By Sharon Noguchi, San Jose Mercury News |

11/22/2013 11:29:29 AM PST | California, threatened with the loss of $3.5 billion in federal funds for suspending high-stakes testing next spring, has tweaked its exam plan.

But it's not certain that the change, which was not cleared first with U.S. officials, will ease the threat to take away funds.

Under the switch, next spring most public school students will test-drive a new generation of standardized tests in both English and math. Initially, the state planned to test students in one subject or the other.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center, answers students' questions during a tour of Emerson Elementary in Albuquerque, N.M., on Sept. 9, 2013. Duncan's back-to-school bus tour also includes stops in Texas, Arizona and California. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP)  >>

Federal law requires states to annually test students in English and math and publish results. The state still doesn't plan to release results, and it doesn't plan to give any student a comprehensive sample test. Instead, most students will take about half the math test and half the English test. A representative sampling of California students, or 5 percent of those tested, will take the full test in just one subject or the other -- so that the test developers can refine their questions.

Instead of negotiating the change with the federal government, California's Chief Deputy Superintendent of Schools Rich Zeiger said, the state requested a waiver from federal law after the new plan was announced Thursday. The waiver, if granted, would release the state from the testing demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law. While many other states have been granted waivers offered previously, California lost out because if has refused to abide by one of the condition -- to boost teacher evaluations.

Without test results, the state will not calculate an Academic Performance Index score for each school and school district in 2014, and possibly in 2015.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan previously criticized California's testing plan and threatened to withhold in federal funds unless the state tests all students and publishes results.

But it was local school districts, and not Uncle Sam, that nudged the state to change course, Zeiger said. "We are responding not to the federal government but to our own folks." However, he added that regarding federal requests, "We are not unmindful of the fact that this may be a whole lot closer to what they want."

U.S. officials would not comment on the waiver request. "The Department of Education continues to have conversations with California officials on student assessments," spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb said. "Once the request is received, we will review the application as we would any state and respond accordingly.

Test officials will use a formula to determine which schools take both tests and which take just one. Either way, each student in grades three through eight plus high school juniors will take about 3-1/2 hours of new tests, called Smarter Balanced.

"I'm excited that all of our students will be tested in both English and math on the Smarter Balance," said Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. "If we are able to test all, we will"

The Oakland Unified School District welcomed testing in both subjects, spokesman Troy Flint said, "so students and teachers are exposed to the exams and so IT administrators have a chance to pilot their systems and work out any kinks."

Since 1999, the state and federal governments' scoring and ranking of schools and districts have provided a benchmark for how they are doing on both an absolute scale and also when compared with other districts and with socioeconomically similar schools.

State school board President Michael Kirst said that testing in both math and English will give students and teachers more experience with Smarter Balance and will enable them to identify technology shortcomings. The new tests are supposed to be given entirely on the computer.

California dumped its old standardized state tests, known as STAR. But because kinks haven't been worked out in the replacement tests, nor have schools fully converted to a new curriculum known as Common Core, the state Legislature deemed the spring tests to be a mere trial.

Other states, however, have either switched tests and are publishing results, or are continuing to administer old tests during their transition.

Education reformers have urged the state to publish the field-test results. "It doesn't make sense to put students through hours of testing and not get some results back to inform parents and teachers," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, which has criticized the state for its testing transition plan.

Zeiger emphasized that in spring students will essentially test the test. He said, "To provide a score that has no meaning is a disservice.

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