The federal government said it would take action against California if the state moves forward with a plan under consideration by the state legislature that would drastically reduce student testing this school year.
Under AB 484, the state would adopt new computerized tests meant to measure whether students are meeting new standards, called the Common Core. But schools would only test English or math proficiency in the spring and results would be exempt from public disclosure.
"A request from California to not measure the achievement of millions of students this year is not something we could approve in good conscience," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.
Federal law requires students be tested in both English and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Duncan said he would be forced to take steps against the state - possibly including financial penalties - if the bill is enacted in its current form. The state receives about $3.7 billion in federal funding for education each year.
State schools superintendent Tom Torlakson, who sponsored the bill, said he is undeterred.
"We can’t drive forward by looking in the rearview mirror," he said. "And apparently that’s what Arne Duncan wants us to do: double test, do the old and the new. Which sends a mixed message to our schools, our teachers, our students and our parents."
Torlakson made a big push Tuesday, urging legislators to pass the bill. He said he will try to get a waiver from the federal government later.
UPDATE: The state Senate approved AB 484 Tuesday afternoon.
“This bill will free up instructional time in the classroom as teachers fully embrace and implement the Common Core State Standards,” said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, the author of the bill.
It now goes back to the Assembly. Governor Jerry Brown said he favors a moratorium on state standardized testing to allow teachers to prepare for the new tests.
Duncan has said his department would consider testing waivers to states moving to the new Common Core standard to avoid double testing - but would not consider allowing states to do without testing altogether.
"We would consider requests from states for a one-year waiver, to allow schools participating in [Common Core] field tests to administer only one assessment in 2013–2014 to any individual student — either the current statewide assessment or the field test," Duncan said in a letter to states this summer.
An earlier version of the bill passed the state assembly. It was heavily modified in the senate appropriations committee. That's where language was introduced allowing all districts to take the new tests in lieu of the current Standardized Testing and Reporting or STAR assessments, but only in one subject. The test is meant to be in a "practice" phase the first two years.
Districts that do not have the technical capabilities to test all students on computers would be exempted from testing altogether under the bill. And current state tests on other subjects not required by the federal government, like history, would not be given at all for the next two years.
Part of the issue is cost. The state has indicated it doesn't have the cash to cover the cost of the tests for every student in both English and math this year. Districts that have the cash could pay for the other test.
John Deasy, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, had come out in favor of the proposal when it was announced it would apply to all districts. But withdrew his support upon learning the state would not pay for tests in both English and math.
He said at the district's school board meeting Tuesday that he expects the state to pass the bill - which he said will hurt the district's ability to see how well students are doing.
"There won't be a state assessment system this year," he said. "But there will be next year" when the state will pay for tests in both math and English.
The state is giving school districts $1.2 billion to transition to Common Core standards - $113 million of which is going to L.A. Unified. Most of that will go to preparing teachers and upgrading technology.
Along with testing requirements, federal law also requires states to report the results of those tests. Duncan did not address whether the proposal's secrecy clause would also violate federal law.
Torlakson called for a legislative fix because state law currently requires students to receive STAR assessments, a pencil-and-paper multiple-choice test, in the spring.
The California legislature ends its session this week.