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The Curious Rejection of One S.C. District's Testing-Waiver Request

UPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education has rejected a waiver request from a South Carolina school district that wanted, with the state's blessing, to administer a package of tests designed by the ACT to its students, versus the regular state assessments.

The Dorchester Two district wanted to use a suite of ACT tests as part of its focus on college- and career-readiness, and because district officials thought those exams did a better job of assessing students than the state version. What's more, the state planned on watching this pilot to see if the ACT could serve as a statewide model for common-core-aligned tests, as an alternative to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests. (South Carolina is a Smarter Balanced member.)

In a March 10 rejection letter, however, Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for K-12, explained that the No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students within a state be held to the same standards and tested on the same tests. She said this is essential given the move to new college- and career-ready standards. The letter also indicated the department objected to the permanent nature of the district's proposed switch to ACT tests, although it's unclear why federal officials couldn't have granted a temporary waiver just for a year or two—as most federal waivers have expiration dates. (ACT Inc. is an Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company that administers the ACT college entrance exam and a host of other tests.)

This rejection is curious for many reasons. Among them:

1. There is precedent for district-level waivers on testing. In 2011, also under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a school district in Kansas got a federal waiver to opt out of state exams for its oldest students and use its own standards and tests (coincidentally ACT exams). That same year in Utah, the federal Education Department allowed 12 districts to use different, computer-adaptive tests for accountability purposes—a request rejected in 2008 by then-Secretary Margaret Spellings.

2. Duncan's administration has shown a willingness to stretch the boundaries of NCLB via waivers. After all, Duncan just last week allowed the state of California to ditch its state tests entirely for 3 million students in grades 3-8 and 11 in favor of only field tests for common-core-aligned exams, which won't produce any data for accountability purposes, as the law requires. In addition, let's not forget that Duncan approved a first-of-its-kind waiver that allows several large California districts to create their own accountability system, separate from the state's.

3. This rejection comes at a particularly tricky time for the common standards, and the tests being developed by two federally financed assessment consortia. The vast majority of states are aligned with either PARCC or Smarter Balanced, two consortia backed by $360 million in federal Race to the Top funds awarded by the department. But the ACT is one of the key outside players trying to break into the lucrative common-core-testing market. Now, the Education Department has thrown up at least one roadblock. And meanwhile, it's worth remembering that federal officials are in the middle of revamping the system by which it will approve new common-core-aligned tests, whether they are consortium, ACT, or other tests.

UPDATE, 9:37 p.m.: The ACT, in a statement to Education Week, noted that it's pleased that there's interest in its college- and career-readiness assessment system, which will be used statewide in Alabama this spring. As for the nixed Dorchester Two waiver request in South Carolina, the company said: "This particular waiver would have set a precedent that would have made it difficult for states to make selections—afforded to them under federal law—on which assessment they would like to administer statewide. This seems to be less about ACT Aspire and more about providing states the authority to exercise their rights. That said, ACT will continue to offer support to Dorchester Two, the state of South Carolina, and our other partners."

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