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NCLB Outrages

Nebraska Tangles With U.S. Over Testing

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a state commissioner of education who stood tough on principle?

By Rhea R. Borja

After first rejecting the state’s approach outright, federal officials now say it is nearing compliance.

Sometimes, being a maverick comes with a price.

In late June, the U.S. Department of Education rejected Nebraska’s localized system of academic standards and student assessments, contending that the state had failed to comply with reporting requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The department said the state had not shown that its local measurement systems align to academic standards, are technically reliable, and have valid reading and mathematics content and achievement standards in grades 3-8 and high school, among other shortcomings.

The kicker? The federal Education Department would withhold 25 percent of Nebraska’s administrative funds under the Title I program for disadvantaged students unless the state provided further documentation that it complied with the law.

The “nonapproval” stamp made Nebraska Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen angry. He declared that Nebraska would not adopt a statewide standardized test, which he says pits schools against one another.

“We don’t give a damn about ranking schools,” the state chief said recently, recalling the dispute. “We refuse to do it.”

Shortly after getting word of the federal action, the commissioner fired off a three-page memo to “all Nebraskans” to express his frustration. “I cannot recall a professional issue in my over 40 years as an educator over which I have been so disappointed,” he wrote in the July 5 memo. “We feel blindsided.”

A flurry of e-mails and phone calls between federal and Nebraska education officials ensued. In addition, supporters mailed about 150 letters to the federal Education Department voicing their approval of Nebraska’s system.
Pushing for Evidence

Later last summer, federal officials said Nebraska’s assessment system may indeed meet NCLB requirements. But they also said the state needed to give more evidence that it does.

The federal agency stated that Nebraska had to shorten its timeline for peer reviews of its local assessment systems—conducted by trained teacher-leaders—from three years to one. The state was also directed to provide more evidence on other items, such as disaggregated student data in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and high school through a statewide data system, and samples of student-assessment reports.

Since last summer, Nebraska has met most the items asked for. As a result, federal officials have changed the state’s status to “approval pending.”

Maine, the only other state to get a “nonapproval” label last summer, has also since had its status upgraded to approval pending. Maine has used local assessments to supplement its statewide reading and math tests, but last May put those district-level tests on hold. Commissioner of Education Susan A. Gendron now wants the legislature to repeal them altogether.

In its bid to win final federal approval, meanwhile, Nebraska has trained more than 110 educators to fan out across the state’s 77,358 square miles in four waves to help validate the 264 districts’ assessments systems.

The NCLB law does not bar states from using local assessment systems, said Catherine E. Freeman, the deputy assistant secretary for policy in elementary and secondary education for the federal Education Department.

“There are many ways a state may show alignment [of state standards and tests],” she said in a recent interview. “But the requirement is that they must submit evidence that their peers acknowledge to be sound.”

Nebraska has until June 15 to submit the peer reviewers’ findings.

— Rhea R. Borja
Education Week


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