Feds accept Vermont's plan for student testing $1.2 million at stake
By Brendan McKenna
Vermont has dodged a substantial financial bullet in switching how schools and students are assessed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But as the state Department of Education works out the details of the transition, it remains under the gun for $1.2 million in federal administrative funds because some middle schools in the state are lacking testing result data from last year.
Last spring, Education Commissioner Richard Cate exempted students in fourth and eighth grades from standardized tests because the state was adopting the New England Common Assessment Program tests in October. He said it would be unfair to test the students twice in six months and the new NECAP tests, which are administered to all students in grades three through eight, would provide better data and more information.
But that exemption nearly ran afoul of the U.S. Department of Education, which requires states to assess schools' progress every year.
"The issue was whether or not we had the authority to not administer the exams this spring," Cate said.
Cate said he and education commissioners in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, who are also instituting the NECAP, decided to make the change without asking the federal department to approve the change.
"I did not want to put them (federal regulators) in the position of having to rule," Cate said.
He added that because the new tests look back to the previous school year, it would have been unlikely that double testing would have produced any new information.
"If I tested (the students) in the spring and then again in the fall, I would never be able to look them in the eye," Cate said. "We will have much better data from the October exams than we would from the May exams."
But this summer Cate learned that his decision had raised some concerns at the federal level.
Even though what the students learned in the 2004-2005 school year will be tested in October, the timing of the test leaves the state without testing data for that school year.
"The staff of the USDOE had expressed concerns that we had not tested students in elementary and middle grade spans during the school year, thereby affecting our ability to make accountability determinations for SY 2005-2006," Cate wrote in a memo to Vermont superintendents and principals in July.
The federal authorities decided to allow Vermont to use other academic measures – testing of second-graders and high school graduation rates – to determine progress under No Child Left Behind.
Margaret Spellings, the federal education secretary, warned in a July 19 letter that once Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have the new system implemented, the states must comply with the federal law.
"I appreciate your patience as we worked through the complexities of this proposal," Spellings wrote. "Please be aware that if Vermont does not meet all NCLB requirements … the Department may consider taking enforcement action, including a withholding of a portion of your Title I State administrative funds."
The state Department of Education receives $1.2 million in Title I administrative funds, not including administrative funds sent directly to school districts and supervisory unions.
Cate said he was relieved that Spellings hadn't demanded additional testing, especially as her decision came over the summer.
"That's a good outcome," he said. "We can use the indicators we traditionally gather and we don't have to change the rules, so to speak."
In a memo to superintendents, Cate said he had been prepared to object to any additional federal requirements, "However, I believe that the plan the Secretary described in her letter is reasonable."
Between the Developmental Reading Assessment, which was given to second-graders in the spring, and graduation rates, Cate said the department will have data on the majority of schools in the state.
But according to Gail Taylor, director of standards and assessment for the Vermont DOE, there are about 25 middle schools — in Rutland, Burlington, Bellows Falls, Colchester, Woodstock and Brattleboro, to name a few — that won't be tracked this year.
"We're in a position right now where we don't have an academic indicator for those schools," Taylor said.
She said the state would likely hold those schools in place for a year under the federal adequate yearly progress assessments, but the details are still being ironed out.
"We'll have a more complete answer Sept. 1," she said. "But we don't have any data to change or modify their positions at this point."
Schools that have already been identified as failing to make adequate yearly progress will remain under that categorization for another year. Although they will not progress to more severe levels of federal sanctions, neither will they be able to make progress toward being removed from the federal watch list.
"In the '06 school year, we'll have all the NECAP results and the decisions will be made with a lot more data, a lot more information," she said. "We'll see what happens, but we should have more information before the beginning of the school year."
Contact Brendan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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