Test options plan could mean loss of millions in funds
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Test options plan could mean loss of millions in federal funds

Rebecca Gau

A bill moving through the Arizona Legislature would allow schools to choose from a nationally recognized set of achievement tests instead of administering the new AzMERIT during the 2015-16 school year to measure students’ academic growth.

But those testing options could violate federal law and place Arizona at risk of losing up to $582 million in federal education funding.

Test options plan could mean loss of millions in federal funds TestingOptionsInsideThe U.S. Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires that the same academic assessment be used to measure the achievement of all children. It also requires the test to be administered annually.

“It would be inconsistent with ESEA requirements for Arizona to offer a menu of assessments from which local school districts could select to administer to students,” according to a document attached to an email from Aiden Fleming, deputy director of policy development and government relations with the Arizona Department of Education.

“The new AzMERIT test is aligned to the current standards and is designed to give teachers, parents and students important information about whether students are on track in learning and applying the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life,” said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona. “The new AzMERIT test is an important step forward from the old AIMS test, which set the bar far too low.”

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Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona

House Bill 2180 would require the State Board of Education to adopt a menu of nationally recognized achievement assessments that include norm-referenced and criterion-referenced tests in reading, writing and math that public district and charter schools could choose from starting next school year to give to their students to measure students mastery of state academic standards.

“Having a standard test, like AzMERIT, used to assess students across Arizona is important because it allows for students and schools to be able to measure their performance in relation to others,” Esau said. “Standardized assessments also create the foundation for Arizona’s accountability measures such as A-F school letter grades and Move on When Reading. Without a standard assessment across students, Arizona’s accountability system would not have a common currency to generate accurate and meaningful comparisons that empower school choice. ”

House Bill 2180 is sponsored by House Education Chairman Paul Boyer, R-20, Phoenix, Senate Education Chairman Sen. Kelli Ward, R-5, Lake Havasu,  and Rep. John M. Allen, R-15. HB 2180 passed in the House and is working its way through the Senate.

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House Education Chairman Paul Boyer, R-20, Phoenix is one of the sponsors of HB 2180.

“As a teacher myself, I don’t want my curriculum or any other teacher’s curriculum to be driven by a test or bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” said Boyer, who teaches at Veritas Preparatory Academy, part of the Great Hearts Academies. “I know first-hand that a single statewide test in every Arizona school does not help students or teachers.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said she supports allowing district and charter schools to select one of several nationally recognized achievement tests to administer to students.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to state testing is not the best way to truly measure student success,” Douglas said. “As a national leader in school choice, Arizona is better suited to a system that allows schools to select a test based on how they teach their students.”

The tests schools could choose from would have to be nationally recognized – like the SAT, PSAT and Advanced Placement exams, said Sally Stewart, communications director for the Arizona Department of Education.

Previously adopted policies, statutes, agreements, contracts and rules have tied Arizona to its current path of implementing the AzMERIT assessment statewide to at least 95 percent of students, Fleming said.

AzMERIT was adopted by the State Board of Education on November 3, 2014 will be administered to students in third grade through high school for the first time throughout Arizona later this month. AzMERIT, which assesses students mastery of Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, replaces AIMS, which measured the previous state academic standards.

Test options plan could mean loss of millions in federal funds Rebecca-Gau

Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children

“We believe a single, high quality assessment is critical for the following reasons,” said Rebecca Gau, executive director at Stand for Children. “A single assessment allows for comparable comparisons between students, classrooms, schools and regions. Arizona’s current assessment AZMerit is aligned with Arizona’s standards and is reflective of what our students are learning in the classroom.”

“Schools rely heavily on expertise from state education officials to execute the statewide assessment efficiently and accurately,” Gau said. “Resources are not available to support the implementation of multiple assessments.”

Fleming also noted that “the department would be remiss in its obligations if it did not inform members (of the legislature) of the possible impact of increased federal monitoring and/or cuts to federal funding if bills are passed containing language that: suspend the statewide assessment; offer multiple assessment options; or allow an opt-out provision that could potentially drop student participation in AzMERIT below 95 percent.”

Douglas said she also supports school districts and charter schools being able to opt out of AzMERIT this year.

“Arizona’s education community is ready, willing and able to give AzMERIT and we believe they should be able to do so, without interference from politicians,” Gau said.

If Arizona does not comply with yearly high-quality academic assessment, low-income communities could be hit hardest.

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Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas

The U.S. Department of Education can request compliance monitoring, label Arizona as “high-risk status,” place conditions on Title I allocations and withhold all or a portion of Arizona’s $321.5 million in Title I program funds and $3.5 in Title I administrative funds, issue a cease and desist order, and force Arizona into a compliance agreement.

Title I funds provide financial assistance to schools with high numbers of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.

Arizona could also face federal funding cuts to other programs:

Later this month, Douglas will meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan  to discuss establishing a continuous standards improvement process, testing concerns and other issues.

“As Arizona’s education leaders and policy makers consider providing a menu of assessments for schools to choose from, we must ensure the various assessment results can be equated with one another,” Esau said. “We will need to consider all of the costs associated with comparability studies as well as the administration of multiple assessments to evaluate whether this is an expense that Arizona can afford.”