Arkansas's testing decision: Why not opt-out entirely for a year? | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Arkansas's testing decision: Why not opt-out entirely for a year?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 6:35 AM

MORATORIUM: Could the state simply stop testing its students for a year while it works out the terms of a new assessment contract? Probably not. - WIKIMEDIA
  • MORATORIUM: Could the state simply stop testing its students for a year while it works out the terms of a new assessment contract? Probably not.

Yesterday afternoon, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was rejecting the State Board of Education's implicit decision (more or less) to stick with the PARCC test for another school year, after the state board on June 11 rejected his decision to move Arkansas to the ACT Aspire instead of PARCC.

The state board doesn't want to rush into a new contract with ACT. The governor won't allow the state to stick with PARCC. The clock is ticking. We now have a situation in which the state has no contract for standardized testing as we head towards the 2015-16 school year.

There are many teachers, parents, administrators, policymakers and students who read that last sentence and think to themselves: Hallelujah. Considering the uncertainty and the compressed timeline — and the broader fact that testing has grown to comprise such an unhappy burden on schools — I've heard more than a few people involved in public education ask whether we can't simply put the brakes on assessment for a single year.

It makes sense. What's the rush to sign a new multi-million dollar contract when there are so many unknowns and so many reservations on all sides? The nation's landscape of assessment providers is rapidly shifting, and it's not clear to many people exactly options are out there, even. Rather than hopping to a third new test in as many years (thus rendering student performance data mostly useless as far as rating the progress of schools), and rather than repeating PARCC (the implementation of which several teachers have described to me as being a "nightmare"), why not take a deep collective breath and boldly declare 2015-16 to be the year without a test?

Because assessment is required by the feds, that's why. That was part of the mandate created by No Child Left Behind, the overhaul of federal public education policy driven by President George W. Bush in 2001. NCLB was the name given to Bush's renewal of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the War on Poverty-era legislation that provides much of the federal education revenue that flows to the states.

NCLB was intended to hold states' feet to the fire by setting high standards and goals on education: For states to keep getting federal money after NCLB, they had to administer a standardized test to all kids every year. (Confusingly, "NCLB" and "ESEA" now are often used interchangeably as ways of referring to the same post-2001 incarnation of the federal bill.)

Kimberly Friedman, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education, directed me to this passage from the current ESEA, typically dense with a cloud of acronyms:

If an SEA [state education agency] fails to comply with assessment requirements, enforcement actions include placing a condition on the SEA’s Title I, Part A grant award, withholding all or a portion of the SEA’s Title I, Part A administrative funds, and suspending, and then withholding, all or a portion of the State’s Title I, Part A programmatic funds. In addition, the SEA or LEA could find itself out of compliance with a wide range of additional Federal programs that rely on statewide assessment results, putting additional funds at risk. Additional programs include the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program; ESEA Title III; Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); programs for rural schools under ESEA Title VI; migrant education under ESEA Title I, Part C; and programs focused on professional development and other supports for teachers, such as ESEA Title II.

How big of a blow would it be to lose that money? "Sixteen percent of all ADE funding for schools originates from federal funds," Friedman said.

That would seem to settle the issue. But on the other hand, the U.S. Department of Education regularly grants "flexibility" waivers to portions of the ESEA, in part because the mandates created by NCLB in 2001 were wildly unrealistic. For example, the provision that all children — all of them! All of them in the country! — had to be performing "proficient" on standardized tests by 2014.

Arkansas, believe it or not, still has some students who are not "proficient" and therefore has to obtain a waiver from the ESEA to allow it to keep getting federal funds. (Such is how a federal agency implements complex laws in a time when passing actual legislation is a rarity; "ESEA flexibility" now forms the core of the state Education Department's bureaucratic interface with its federal counterpart.) Is it conceivable — or even legally possible — that the feds could allow Arkansas the extraordinary step of suspending its testing for a year? Probably not, but I'd like to know what a knowledgeable lawyer would say.

Also: Have a question about testing or Common Core? Ask in the comments. I'm trying to assemble an FAQ on the topic compiled from reader queries. 

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