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The Significance of Idaho's New Double-Testing Waiver

This week Idaho won a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to allow all of its schools to field test new common-core-aligned tests this spring. Although the department has approved more than a dozen of these so-called "double-testing" waivers before, Idaho is only the second state, in addition to Montana, to win approval to give the field test in all of its schools.

Why is this important? Because for one year, Idaho will not be required by federal officials to report any data to teachers, administrators, and parents on how students are performing—a hallmark of the No Child Left Behind law. And, this approval is important because it could set a precedent for a decision coming soon from the department on California, which also wants to ditch its state tests entirely so it can give only field tests designed by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. 

Last year, the Education Department offered states flexibility so schools wouldn't have to give the same students new common-core-aligned field tests, and their old state tests. Field tests won't produce any usable data on student performance because they are experimental by design, and used to "test the tests" to make sure they are, among other things, asking the right questions. Importantly, all of the double-testing federal guidance and FAQs clearly envisioned that students would take a mix of field tests and state tests. That would ensure at least some data—from the state tests—were still reported so educators and parents could know how their students are doing. 

In fact, in September, regarding the California situation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: "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."

But when it came right down to it, the department has allowed at least a couple states to throw that overboard and only offer field tests, which will produce no data for parents, educators, or the public. (It's important to note, however, that the prior year's accountability designations would hold steady during this data-dark year, so any interventions, sanctions, or improvement efforts are supposed to carry over for an extra year. And the federal guidance didn't explictly forbid states from using only field tests.)

"This is a solid plan that will allow Idaho to accomplish it's three-year transition to a new assessment," Idaho education department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath told me Friday.

Montana is the other state that won approval to field test in all of its schools. In addition, Connecticut, South Dakota, and Maryland gave gotten approval to give field tests in almost all of their schools. 

So how might the department not approve California's similar request? 

California submitted a plan to the Education Department that calls for giving some version of the field test to 95 percent of students in tested grades, in both math and reading. No state tests would be given.

If approved, that means a state with 6 million students, and a gigantic share of the nation's English-learner population, would not be required to produce any data to the public, parents, or educators on how students performed during spring 2014 tests. 

And that's a huge problem for California civil-rights groups, who have called for the department to require some sort of data reporting even if the state only administers field tests.

Importantly, neither Idaho's nor Montana's waiver contained any conditions that require them to do any additional data reporting on student performance. So will the department put special conditions on California—a state that has tussled many times with the department already? A decision from the Education Department is expected any day now.

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