States Dubious Of Federal Testing Plan
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Nebraska's testing system is better for the Cornhusker State than the testing system mandated by the new federal school aid bill, according to state Commissioner of Education Douglas Christensen.
If that means bucking Washington, D.C. by failing to comply with new federal requirements to test every child in grades 3-8 annually, then Christensen is willing to do so. But for now, Christensen is working with the U.S. Education Department in an effort to show why Nebraska's system is better.
"We aren't trying to have some shootout at the OK corral, that isn't what we are after. But we are in charge. The constitution of the United States and the constitution of Nebraska say that when it comes to education we are in charge, not the federal government, and we think we are demonstrating leadership and we want to tell our story," Christensen told Stateline.org.
Nebraska's STAR program, [School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System] allows school districts to create their own tests based on learning goals set at the local level. The state has its own set of goals for what students should know and district goals must meet or exceed these expectations.
The districts provide the state with testing portfolios that include at least one of the five national standardized tests. This comparison ensures that the district tests are demanding enough.
Last year, Nebraska published its first state-level report card based on these portfolios, as well as state-level tests in grades 4,8 and 11 and national tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and college admissions exams.
But this testing plan doesn't fit neatly into the new federal requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
"We are willing to take steps to be accountable and assure that no child is left behind but we don't think that kind of testing regime (grades 3-8) is necessary to do that," Christensen says.
In Washington, D.C. the Education Department is writing rules that will guide states in complying with the new law, but Congress has promised the states flexibility.
"The rhetoric is flexibility and partnership, and we are saying we will be partners with you but you have to look at what we are doing and be flexible," Christensen says.
Nebraska isn't the only state with reservations.
In April, Vermont's Governor Howard Dean announced that he was considering rejecting the federal funding that comes with ESEA because he disagrees with the testing requirements, as well as other parts of the law.
"Many of the states in the North and along the Canadian border, from Maine to Washington, including the Midwest states, already have very advanced testing systems. This (the federal requirement) is an inferior testing system and again, it requires the local people to pay for it," Dean told Stateline.org.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit says his state's testing system is superior to the 3-8 reading and math tests Washington is calling for. He is hoping that achievement scores will show Washington that the state test is valid.
Maine and Connecticut students continually score best in the nation in learning achievement, and Maine has no plans to change its testing system.
"We have no plans to add more statewide standardized testing, to do so we think would be prohibitively expensive and not educationally sound," says Yellow Light Breen, spokesman for Maine's education department.
But Maine isn't willing to chuck the federal help yet," In terms of federal dollars, they may account for only about 6 percent (of the cost of running schools) but that is a significant chunk - schools are not swimming in excess resources," Breen says.
Patty Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director at the Council of Chief State School Officers says her phone has been ringing off the hook with education officials frustrated over the new federal requirements.
"States have been working on this for ten, sometimes fifteen years and have developed (testing) systems that they think are good," Sullivan says.
If Nebraska has to test every student in 3-8 at the state level, classroom teachers will have to teach the same things in every class so that students can pass the test. The state's 8th graders rank 12th among the states in mathematics and 11th in science. Christensen doesn't want to stop the momentum to meet a "regulation."
"If down the road, push comes to shove and we have to give up sound education policy purely for the sake of politics, we may take the same track that Vermont does (and threaten to forgo funding.). But it will be the call of the governor, the legislature and the state board of education, but it will be my recommendation. We will stand firm," Christensen said.