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Could Local Tests Be the Way Forward in an NCLB Rewrite?

Congress is contemplating a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act that could roll back the law's testing requirements—or at least give districts the option of creating their own systems, with state approval.

So would a locally-driven accountability system be a huge disaster for students?

It sure wasn't when Nebraska tried it, said Doug Christensen, the state's former commissioner of education. (Not everyone sees it that way; more on that below.)

Back in 2000, before the NCLB law came on the scene, the Cornhusker State cooked up its own system of locally-created assessments, buttressed, in certain grades, with a menu of statewide, standardized tests.

The basic gist of the system: Each local district in Nebraska had to adopt its own standards. The only catch? They had to be at least as hard, or harder, than model standards put forth by the state. Then teachers set to work on creating local assessments aligned with their local standards, and reporting the results to the state. These local assessments didn't have to be pen-and-paper tests. They could be portfolios, demonstration tasks—teachers had wide discretion.  

The system was known as the School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System, or STARS. And it asked a lot of Nebraska's teachers, who had to figure out the ins-and-outs of valid assessments.

That was the biggest boon, in fact, in Christensen's mind. "Probably the thing we did [best] was the professional development piece," he said. "Teachers became assessment experts." The local tests, he said, aligned much more closely to what students were actually learning in the classroom than off-the-shelf, standardized assessments would have.  

The system had outside validity too, in Christensen's view. Nebraska brought in experts from across the country to review districts' work and provide feedback. (For an on-site look at Nebraska's system, check out this fantastic vintage Edweek story by former colleague, Rhea Borja.)  

Nebraska was able to hang on to its system, for a while, under NCLB, because of regulations that allowed for local assessments as long as the state could prove they were comparable, valid, and reliable. And that turned out to be really, really hard.

In fact, Nebraska was the last holdout on local tests. Then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings threatened the state with a loss of Title I administrative funds, unless it was able to prove its system was comparable and valid. Ultimately, the state legislature opted to go with statewide assessments. 

Christensen decided he couldn't stand for that and resigned in 2008. But his struggle against NCLB earned him some fist-bumps from standardized testing skeptics.

Now Nebraska uses an accountability system that looks pretty much like everyone else's, with high-stakes, standardized tests at the center. (The state doesn't have an NCLB waiver though, for now.) And that requires about 18 to 20 days of test-prep, Christensen said. "Teachers are feeling that any discretion is slowly slipping away," he said.

So what does all this have to do with the current debate over NCLB renewal? A draft bill by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, offers lawmakers two options to mull over on testing, both of which would open the door to what Nebraska tried in the 2000s.

One would essentially let states do pretty much whatever they want on assessments. The other would keep NCLB's testing schedule, but add a twist: Districts could create their own assessment systems, as long as their states give the OK. (The feds would have no role in the approval process whatsoever.)  More in this cheat sheet on the legislation

Christensen was up on Capitol Hill last week telling his story in more than a dozen congressional offices, including to members of both parties, along with folks from the National Education Association, which is leading the charge in favor of grade-span tests. (It's worth nothing that Christensen's position in Nebraska was non-partisan.)

Are lawmakers buying his ideas? "There's an interest in looking at flexibility and alternatives," Christensen said. "I think clearly people are seeing that we're doing right now is so onerous, so foreboding. We've got to do something different."

For a totally different take on local tests, including Nebraska's approach, check out this blog post by Bellwether Education Partners' Anne Hyslop, who sees some serious problems with the idea. In fact, she calls a system of valid, comparable, local tests a "unicorn," and really, really hard to get right. 

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