Standardized science standoff: California, feds at odds again over a statewide test

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson uses a yardstick as a pointer during a press conference unveiling results of the state's standardized tests for public schools.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson uses a yardstick as a pointer during a press conference unveiling results of the state's standardized tests for public schools.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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There's a standoff brewing between education officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., over what standardized science test California students should take this spring.

It bears striking resemblance to a very similar 2014 impasse between the California and U.S. departments of education, and if that history is any indication, California's federal school funding could again be in jeopardy if this year's dispute escalates.

California Department of Education officials want to administer a new statewide science test to all fifth, eighth and tenth graders this spring; a test tailor-made to match the new science standards teachers are following this year.

But so far, the new test only exists in a shortened, pilot form; California would need an exemption from federal laws that require the state to report the scores of a benchmark science test every year.

U.S. Department of Education officials don't want to grant that exemption, saying California can't ignore the federal requirement to measure students' progress in science annually. Until the new exam is ready, the feds said the state's schools must at least continue administering the old test.

The catch? The old test is based on an old set of science standards, written in 1998, that California teachers no longer follow. California teachers are in their first full year using the new Next Generation Science Standards, which been rolling out since 2013.

"Teachers don’t want to give students a test without preparing them for it," said Jessica Sawko, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

Officials at the two departments will hold a hearing via teleconference this Friday, Jan. 6, in hopes of breaking the deadlock — but unless either state or federal officials change course, the two are bound for collision:

California state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson said state officials are still moving "full-speed ahead" with their rollout of the new science test in 2017, and California Department of Education spokesman Bill Ainsworth said the state will not administer both the old and new tests.

"We are not going to double-test," Ainsworth said in an interview. "It would not be fair to our students, our parents, our educators and our community. That would go backward. It would take up valuable time. It would be inefficient. It would be wasteful. We are going full speed ahead with our new online tests."

But those new tests won't be completely ready until the 2018-19 school year — after this spring's pilot version, California plans to give students a "field test" of the new assessment in the 2017-18 school year — and federal officials aren't comfortable waiving the rules for two or three years.

California's plan "would not ensure that the public, including districts, schools, parents and educators, has sufficient information on student academic achievement to help every student graduate high school college and career ready," wrote Ann Whalen, senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education John King, in a September letter to state officials.

And in a Dec. 13 follow-up letter, Whalen held firm, writing "both the proposed pilot and field tests would not measure the full depth and breadth of the state's academic content standards in science."

So, in summary: state officials still plan to administer a new science exam and doesn't want to test students twice; the feds say giving only the new exam won't fly.

While the letter doesn't spell out what will happen if California doesn't administer the old test, the 2014 standoff might offer some clues. Then, when California officials wanted to only administer portions of newly-developed standardized math and reading tests, the U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold as much as $3 billion in federal funding.

This year, federal officials haven't formally made such a threat — at least, not yet.

"It is premature to speculate," read a statement from U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jessica Allen, "about possible actions the department might take until after California presents at its upcoming hearing and the appeals process is concluded."

However, Allen continued, "as in all cases where a state fails to comply with the requirements of [federal education law], the department may take a range of enforcement actions, including the withholding of funds."

It's not clear whether or how the transition to the Trump administration will impact the dispute. State officials intend to begin pilot testing in late March.

Federal officials said a compromise is possible — at least in theory. California officials could administer the new, pilot exam to a smaller group of students and the old exam statewide. The state could give the old exam, but with questions and test items from the new exam "embedded" in it, as Whalen's letter suggested.

But state officials noted the old assessment is a paper-and-pencil test, while the new assessment is administered online and is "computer-adaptive," meaning it gives students progressively harder or easier items depending on how many questions he or she answers correctly.

In the end, though, the California Science Teachers Association has lent its strongest support to state education officials in the dispute because, executive director Sawko said, teachers have been using the Next Generation Science Standards to shape their instruction. Giving a test based on old standards is counterproductive, she said.

"Teachers and even administrators at schools view statewide summative assessments as signals of what should be happening in classrooms," Sawko said, "and if the statewide summative assessment is not consistent with the new standards, then that's a signal that [schools] shouldn't be moving forward with them, which is not the signal the state wants to send."

And state officials want schools to move forward with implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, Sawko said, which are designed to encourage students to focus on how to apply scientific methods to the real world.

And then there's the more basic problem:

"It doesn’t make students feel good," Sawko said, "about their performance on an assessment if they haven't been prepared for it."