Despite looming showdown with feds, Senate passes standardized testing bill

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.
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 a handful of Republicans voting no, the state Senate passed legislation Tuesday that moves school districts one step closer to implementing the Common Core standards and the state one step closer to a confrontation with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Assembly Bill 484 now moves to the Assembly and then to Gov. Jerry Brown, whose spokesman on Tuesday confirmed that Brown would sign it.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, suspends most standardized tests next spring and swaps the state English language arts and math assessments in grades 3 through 8 and 11 for a non-high-stakes field test for Common Core. Because state tests are required for federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind law, the State Board of Education plans to seek a waiver from Duncan to avoid double testing in those grades and subjects.
Duncan, however, took the unusual step Monday night of warning that he would deny the waiver if AB 484 was approved as written and could penalize the state by withholding an unspecified amount of federal funding. Duncan’s chief spokesman said the likely target would be money the state receives for administering state standardized tests. The state received $30.2 million last year for this, according to the state Department of Education.
Democratic Sen. Roderick Wright urges passage of AB 484.AB 484 was passed without amendments by a vote of 25-7. With the exception of Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, who called Duncan’s Race to the Top grants “a scam” and said he would “not let Arne Duncan teach my granddaughter,” Duncan’s threat got little mention in the short, vigorous debate on the bill.
Supporters reiterated the prime contention of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson that it’s important to make a clean break from old tests on standards the state no longer teaches and instead to prepare for the new Common Core tests, which will officially be introduced in spring 2015.
“It’s self-evident that you test to what you teach in the classroom,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. “We’re in the process of changing what we teach in the classroom.”
Opponents said they, too, support the new Common Core standards but that AB 484 went too far in dismantling the current accountability system. “This guts our testing system,” said Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. “Tests are an objective way our parents can see how our children are performing.” He pointed to a recent PACE-USC Rossier School of Education poll that found two-thirds of parents favor annual testing in every subject.
Republican Sen. Mark Wyand urged going slower, starting with a pilot program of Common Core.Sen. Mark Wyland, R-San Diego, suggested that instead of suspending testing, the state should start with a pilot program for Common Core. “As good as the Common Core standards are, they are not quite ready to be implemented as broadly as we would like,” he said, pointing to the lack of curriculums and the unfinished Smarter Balanced assessments.
Republicans weren’t alone. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, one of the architects of the No Child Left Behind law, also came out in opposition to the bill for the same reason.
“Failing to measure and inform parents about how well their child is doing in school for an entire academic year is absolutely the wrong approach,” Miller said in a statement. “Additionally, maintaining a focus on achievement is especially critical at this time for English Learners and students with disabilities.”
AB 484 lays out a plan for redesigning the state testing system, beginning with a skeleton offering next spring that will disrupt the Academic Performance Index, the system of measuring school achievement. Only the high school exit exam and science tests in three grades, required by federal law, would survive. It could be three to five years before the state reintroduces an Algebra I or Geometry test, creating a big gap in information on student achievement in those and other subjects.
The field test for the Common Core standards, an online test being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium for California and two dozen other states, would be offered in those districts with the capacity to offer a computer-based test. A field test isn’t designed to produce scores for individual students or perhaps even schools; its purpose is to serve the needs of test developers. Results could not be used for state accountability purposes.
Quandary over field test waiver
Recognizing the need for an accurate and valid test in 2015, Duncan announced in June that he would consider an exemption from administering state assessments to those schools offering the field test next spring. Schools that didn’t offer the field test would continue to administer state tests, as demanded by federal law.
What Duncan objected to is California’s plan. Those districts without enough computers for the field test would give no English language arts or math test. Torlakson argues that there’s no point in making these districts, which he predicts will be a low percentage of the total, take the old state test, just for the sake of it. They should be focusing their energy on Common Core, he said.
And students in districts offering the field test would get either the math or English language arts part of the test, not both. Districts that want to offer both could do so, but they’d have to pay half the tab.
Bonilla said legislators were wary about overloading districts by requiring that they give both parts of the field test. Having one-half of students take each test will reveal what districts need to know about areas of improvement, she said.
Whether Duncan will punish California for demanding its own way will be determined in coming months. The State Board of Education has assigned President Michael Kirst the job of fashioning the specifics of the waiver and negotiating it with the feds.
It’s unclear what state standardized tests will be reintroduced beyond this year and when. California, perhaps in conjunction with other states, must design new science tests aligned with the New Generation Science Standards that the State Board adopted last week. And it will need new high school math tests, which Smarter Balanced is not designing, and computer-based social studies tests, too. The bill requires the state Department of Education to present a master plan to the Legislature by March 2016.
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