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Governor signs law ending 15-year-old standardized tests; students will get practice test this year

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Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill Wednesday that officially puts an end to the state's 15-year-old multiple-choice standardized test and ushers in a new test.

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill Wednesday that officially puts an end to the state's 15-year-old multiple-choice standardized test and ushers in a new test - creating a conflict with the federal government.

The conflict does not involve the test itself, which aims to better prepare students for work and college. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education has raised objections to the state's plan to only pay for the cost to administer either math or English portions of the test in the spring, while the test is in a pilot phase. California schools would not be required to give the other portion - but could if they wanted to pay for it themselves.

Federal law requires students be tested in both subjects in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Brown has been talking with the U.S. Department of Education for weeks, according to Michael Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education.

“I don’t think the game is over in terms of negotiating something with the U.S. Department of Education,” Kirst said. He pointed out that Duncan softened his position in statements made to the news media in recent weeks.

The federal Department of Education's media relations office was closed Wednesday due to the government shutdown and a spokesman could not be reached for comment on his cellphone.

The bill's author applauded Brown's priorities in signing the measure.

"What we should have as a priority is not keeping Washington, D.C. happy,"  said Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, who authored AB 484. "What we should have as a priority in California is doing the very best job of educating our own children.

State schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson sent out a press release cheering Brown's action.

The new law suspends much of the state standardized testing of second through eleventh graders that’s been going on since California adopted the Standardized Testing and Reporting assessments in 1999.

The new tests, developed by a consortium of states that have adopted new Common Core learning standards, will assess students on critical thinking and communication skills through computerized tests that will adjust to each student's skill level. The tests are only beginning to roll out, and the law paves the way for California to participate in the field test of the test, to iron out content and technical glitches.

The new law also keeps this year's results private - parents won't know how their children performed and the public won't know how well schools performed. Scores won’t count toward annual school accountability measures.

“Supporting a transition plan for the new state assessment system is just common sense,” Bonilla said in a statement.

When AB 484 passed the state Senate, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened to withhold federal funding coming to California if the state did not test in both English and math, as required by No Child Left Behind.

He has said he's willing to give states that already have received waivers to other portions of No Child Left Behind flexibility in transitioning to the new test, saying students should not be tested on both old and new standards. But until now, he has not budged on the requirement that both tests be given.

That wouldn't apply to California anyway. Duncan last year denied California's waiver application, in part because of the state's refusal to require districts to use student tests scores in teacher evaluations. A consortium of large school districts in the state, including L.A. Unified and Long Beach Unified, banded together to get their own waiver from the federal government.) 

At the local level, educators have a lot of work ahead of them to carry out the transition.

School districts have the large task of training teachers in the new learning standards and making sure they have the technology infrastructure to administer a portion of the new computer standardized tests this spring.

The bill allows districts to ask to skip the test this year altogether  if they don't have enough computers or internet access to administer it.

Jay Greenlinger, Director of Instructional Technology for the Pleasant Valley Unified School District, said it'll be hard to get ready in time - for now, he's not even close.

"To allow 4,000 students to test online for 8 hours each over the course of 2 weeks at 11 sites? No way."

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