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States new K-12 testing plan gets OK
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Federal education officials on Friday approved California’s plan to roll out new computer-based standardized tests this spring, ending a months-long dispute that put the state at risk of sacrificing $1.5 billion in federal school funding.

The U.S. Department of Education said the state’s plan for an experimental trial run of the new Smarter Balanced language and math tests makes sense because they more accurately mirror the lessons teachers have been giving this year. The Smarter Balanced tests will replace the Standardized Testing and Reporting tests, or STAR tests, that the state’s public school students have taken in reading, math and social science since 1999, but no results will be made available from this year’s debut.

The new tests, which take six or seven hours to complete but are administered over several days, were designed with 23 other states to follow a set of national curriculum standards known as the Common Core. Most of the participating states plan to have 20 percent of their students take either the math or language portion this year. But in California, both parts will be given to all students in grades 3-8 and 11, as well as small sample of ninth- and 10th-graders, sometime between March 18 and June 6.

“Approval of this waiver could not have come at a better time. In little more than a week, some 3 million students will begin the largest field test of these new assessments of any state in the nation,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan initially threatened to withhold funding the federal government provides to schools with large numbers of low-income children if the state abandoned the old tests while the new ones were still under development. Duncan said in the fall that he was concerned the public would be deprived of essential information about how well students and teachers are performing because no individual or school wide scores will be generated or reported from this spring’s testing.

In a letter granting the state a one-year waiver from the reporting requirements, Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle did not indicate why Duncan had set aside his concerns. Under the terms of the waiver, high schools still will be required to show they are making progress by reporting results from the high school exit exam the state gives students starting in 10th grade.

Three other states planning to field test the new instrument this spring, Montana, South Dakota and Idaho also have received approval to suspend their existing standardized tests for students who will be taking the new ones.

“We think that California’s transition plan for this one year of field testing is consistent with the offer for flexibility that we made to states last summer and would stress that in any state, including California, that receives this flexibility, there will be no lessening of supports for struggling students,” Duncan press secretary Dorie Turner Nolt said. “Schools where students are taking the field test will continue their accountability status and interventions from the prior year, and new accountability determinations will continue to be made for schools that are not taking the field test.”

Unlike the old paper-and-pencil STAR tests, the Smarter Balanced assessments were designed to be taken on computers and to adapt to what students know by giving them prompts if their answers are incomplete. The new assessments also were created to align with the Common Core standards, a framework that backers say is designed to better prepare students for college and careers.

States are giving the new tests this year to evaluate the tests’ validity and to identify potential technical glitches before results are made available in 2015.

California officials decided to take an aggressive approach that calls for all students in the affected grades to sit for both the math and language parts of Smarter Balanced, arguing that the 15-year-old STAR tests no longer reflect what students are being taught and making students take both tests would be a waste of classroom time.

Because the state does not plan to generate individual student scores, school performance reports or statewide results from the spring rollout, the California Department of Education had to seek a federal waiver from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act. The act requires states to increase the percentage of students who are proficient in language arts and math to remain eligible for funding under the federal program that provides aid for economically disadvantaged students.