Feds threaten Brown on testing plan

Feds threaten Brown on testing plan

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan moved earlier this week to squelch California’s plan to suspend almost all statewide student testing next year by formally threatening to withhold administrative Title I money – some portion of about $15 million.

The action, which had been anticipated for weeks, comes even as the Obama administration has granted 45 other states conditional relief from most of the requirements and sanctions imposed under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But in a letter to state officials this week, first reported by EdSource Wednesday, federal officials said California’s plans to suspend testing violate assessment requirements for accountability purposes.

“By failing to administer a reading/language arts and mathematics assessment to all students in the tested grades, California would be unable to provide this important information to students, principals, teachers, and parents,” said Deborah S. Delisle, assistant secretary over the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, in the letter to state board president Mike Kirst and state schools chief Tom Torlakson.

Delisle identified at risk $15 million in Title I money largely used to pay for support activities at the California Department of Education and alluded to further sanctions if the state did not comply.

The threat, also not unexpected (see Cabinet Report, Sept. 19: http://bit.ly/1fcd9xA), would not likely be carried out for months given that the state has not yet officially violated federal testing mandates.

AB 484, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law only last month, would suspend virtually all testing next year, including those needed for federal accountability purposes, as part of the state’s effort to transition from the existing system of instruction and testing to one based on new national curriculum standards.

Ironically, California stands as one of the nation’s leaders in embracing the Common Core – a high priority for the Obama administration, which is under attack in a number of other states, including many that have received NCLB flexibility waivers from Duncan.

Still, allowing California – which has been denied a statewide NCLB waiver – to circumvent federal assessment requirements poses a significant political threat to the U.S. Department of Education’s plans for integrating new accountability and performance standards in an environment where Congress appears unable to reauthorize the nation's education law.

The warning to withhold federal money is not unprecedented – in fact, disputes between states and federal regulators are common and are even governed by an appeal and resolution process.

Insiders have suggested that Brown is not likely to back down, especially since the state won’t even become officially out of compliance until 2015. Add on the time that the state will have to appeal the fine and California would be theoretically on the cusp of being back in compliance based on the plan set out in AB 484 before the loss of federal funds would become an issue.

A similar dispute between California and the Bush administration over eighth grade algebra testing in 2009 ended up with $50,000 in federal money being withheld.