Duncan grants relief to some schools facing two sets of standardized tests next year

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has just made the challenge of transitioning to the Common Core standards less burdensome for about one in five schools in California.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a visit this spring to Fremont High in Sunnyvale. Photo by Kathryn Baron.Duncan on Tuesday announced that schools that do the field test for the new Common Core assessment next spring can get a one-year waiver from also giving current state standardized tests required by federal law.
For California, that means those schools can turn next year to teaching the new standards exclusively without focusing on the California Standards Tests in English language arts and math – and the weeks of test prep that many students and teachers must endure preceding the paper-based, multiple-choice assessment. The schools that take the field test would use the CST results from the previous year for accountability under the No Child Left Behind law. The waiver could complicate the state’s ability to compute a school’s and district’s Academic Performance Index (API) score.
California and 44 other states that have adopted the Common Core standards have agreed to begin giving the new tests in spring 2015. California has a leading role in shaping the tests for Smarter Balanced, one of two consortia of states creating the federally funded tests in math and English language arts.
This past spring, 1 million students in 26 states, including 200,000 students in 1,400 districts and charter schools in California, took the Smarter Balanced pilot test, whose purpose was to test the validity of the new questions. Next spring, double that number – 20 percent of students  in California and other Smarter Balanced states – will participate in the more extensive field test, a dry run of the full assessment they’ll take a year later, according to Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman, who also serves on the executive committee of Smarter Balanced. Criteria for school participation in the field test aren’t yet available, Sigman said.
This will give many schools their first try at a computer-based test; they’ll also get some limited test results back. One purpose of the field test is for Smarter Balanced’s designers to determine score results for classifying students at proficient and other levels of achievement.
A capacity issue
It’s unclear how many schools in California have the number of computers and the Internet capability to administer the field test. Fewer than half of districts responded to a Smarter Balanced survey last year gauging their technological capability.
Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway, a San Francisco nonprofit that is working on the schools’ technology gaps, estimates that 27 percent of the nation’s schools have the bandwidth to handle the type of assessment that Smarter Balanced is designing and twice that percentage can handle a slimmed-down version – basically moving multiple-choice questions to the computer, without the complex, media-rich questions that the consortium is designing.
Duncan’s willingness to eliminate double-testing next year for grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 will provide relief for students facing the prospect of two tests of six to eight hours each – perhaps longer for Smarter Balanced – and for teachers faced with teaching two sets of standards, one state and one national. While there is considerable overlap, the Common Core standards, with an emphasis on conceptual thinking, will create additional challenges for teachers.
In a statement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson praised Duncan’s position on testing flexibility as “good news for students and schools as we make the transition to new assessments based on California’s career- and college-ready standards. Double-testing would have taken up time students need to learn, and could have made our move to new assessments even more challenging.”
Torlakson has already proposed suspending most state standardized tests not required by NCLB starting next year and to use the savings in test administration to design new subject-matter tests aligned to Common Core standards, starting with Algebra and Geometry.
Reprieve on teacher evaluations
In the same statement, Duncan also announced that the federal government would push back by a year, to 2016-17, the requirement that growth in student test scores be used as a component in teacher and principal evaluations. Teachers and education advocates had complained that it would be problematic, if not unfair, to judge them by the initial year’s scores under a new system of Common Core standards and tests. Duncan’s extension would permit compiling three years of student results before use in evaluations.
California won’t be affected immediately, since the requirement applies to states that have received either a Race to the Top grant or a waiver from sanctions of No Child Left Behind. Duncan rejected California’s waiver application last year, and the earliest the state could apply again would be for the 2014-15 year. The extension could affect the nine California districts that are seeking a district waiver from NCLB through their organization, the California Office to Reform Education. They’ve agreed to use scores of standardized tests as a minor element in teacher evaluations. CORE expects to hear within the next few weeks whether its waiver application, taking effect this fall, is approved.

 
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