Why Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold funds for poor kids

September 21, 2013
(Map by NASA)
California (map by NASA)

It’s hard to decide  which of the following aspects of the U.S. Education Department’s fight with the state of California over standardized testing is worse:

* Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold some of the approximately $1.5 billion that California receives annually from the federal Title 1 program — funds intended to help poor children receive an education — if state officials don’t agree to implement a standardized-testing regime that he likes.

* He would rather have the state give students standardized tests that California officials say no longer reflect the curriculum than to allow kids to go a year without being tested.

* He is trying to come down hard on California as a way of warning other states not to try to defy the Education Department.

* He is selectively enforcing No Child Left Behind, a law that he admits is fatally flawed and should be scrapped.

What’s this all about?

California passed a law (AB 484) to abandon the standardized tests that have been given to students for years because the state adopted the Common Core standards and is revamping its curriculum. The old tests don’t reflect the new curriculum, so it would seem to make infinite sense that kids should no longer have to take them. While new tests aligned with the Common Core are being designed, state officials want to replace the old tests with a limited version of the exams that are coming in 2015 — but only in those districts that have the technology to administer the exams, which are to be done on computers. That makes infinite sense, too. Because this is an experiment, California officials don’t want the scores of the tests to be included in an official measure of school quality.

But here’s the problem: The No Child Left Behind law, which Congress was supposed to have rewritten in 2007, remains in force and mandates annual exams. To implement this plan, California would need a waiver  from the U.S. Education Department exempting it from No Child Left Behind mandates. Duncan began offering waivers from the most onerous NCLB mandates in 2011 to states that agreed to implement reforms he liked, and 34 states and the District of Columbia obtained them.

Now he is offering to let those states and the District renew their waivers, but, again, only by pursuing reforms he likes. California sought a NCLB waiver, but Duncan rejected its application on the grounds that the state would not agree to use students’ standardized-test scores to evaluate teachers — an assessment method that many experts say is unfair. But get this: Eight school districts in California banded together to apply for an NCLB waiver — agreeing to using scores to assess teachers — and Duncan this past summer agreed to give them one. That meant the federal government was bypassing the state government to control the accountability systems of individual school districts.

It’s no wonder some people are accusing Duncan of using strong-arm tactics to force states to do what he wants in education.

That’s the backdrop for the latest Duncan intervention. As this Los Angeles Times editorial explains:

Enter U.S. Marshal — er, Education Secretary — Arne Duncan, with his education reform guns blazing. He takes a dim view of AB 484 because not all students would take a test this year, as the law requires, and because the state would not release the results of this practice run, either publicly or to the federal government. That would keep the Department of Education from using the scores to determine whether schools have met their targets under No Child Left Behind. California Supt. Tom Torlakson says the state will not back down, even though Duncan is threatening to withhold some or all of the approximately $1.5 billion it receives each year in federal Title I funds.

This is one showdown in which neither side can claim the high ground. California should test all of its students, providing pencil versions for those in districts that don’t have the technology for the computerized version. After all, pencils will still be a part of the testing scene for a few more years, and Torlakson’s explanation — that the state lacks the funds to test all students — doesn’t hold water. But the bigger problem is Duncan’s insistence on using these tests to measure school growth in 2014, the year when all schools are supposed to be at 100% proficiency under No Child Left Behind (cue the laugh track). That’s not a legitimate use of the untested tests, which should have no official standing this first year.

Duncan is allowing other states to try out the new test on 20% of their students and not have the results count, but the other 80% have to take the old tests. California’s proposal makes more sense; it would be counterproductive to test any students using the old tests. Teachers won’t be able to focus on the challenging new material if they’re being judged on the old. Duncan is acting the fussy bureaucrat here, enforcing the letter of what he admits is a bad law rather than encouraging better education. One year without No Child Left Behind data is minor.

Here’s a statement that Duncan released Sept. 9 about California’s testing plans:

“A request from California to not measure the achievement of millions of students this year is not something we could approve in good conscience. Raising standards to better prepare students for college and careers is absolutely the right thing to do, but letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools’ performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition. No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students’ achievement, you need to know how all students are doing. If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the Department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state.

“In states like California that will be field-testing more sophisticated and useful assessments this school year, the Department has offered flexibility to allow each student to take their state’s current assessment in English language arts and math or the new field tests in those subjects. That’s a thoughtful approach as states are transitioning to new standards. While standards and tests may not match up perfectly yet, backing away entirely from accountability and transparency is not good for students, parents, schools and districts.

“California has demonstrated its leadership by raising its standards, investing in their implementation and working with other states to develop new assessments, and I urge the state to continue to be a positive force for reform.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · September 21, 2013