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California Can Hit Accountability Snooze Button

California has reason to cheer—and jeer—at the U.S. Department of Education this week. Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent, and Mike Kirst, the state board president, received a letter Tuesday with some good news for its education officials—California will be allowed to hit the pause button on its school rating system. 

But the state did not get its way when it comes to requests dealing with accountability and assessments for students in special education and English Language Learners, according to the letter, from Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. In fact, if it doesn't make some fixes in those areas, the Golden State could risk losing federal funds. 

Let's unpack the positive news (from the perspective of state officials) first: California must be very happy it is allowed to hit the snooze button on school ratings, for what is, for essentially the second year in a row. Some background: An accountability "pause" is something the U.S. Department of Education offered every state that's making the transition to new assessments this school year.

States that opt to go this route would still have to give tests and break out the data by particular subgroups of students, but they wouldn't have to change a school's overall rating (meaning that an 'A' school wouldn't necessarily have to drop down to a 'C' if it bombed the new tests.)

And more than a dozen states—including Florida, Mississippi, and Vermont—want to take the feds up on this offer.

So why is it a big deal that California gets to join them? This gets wonky, but it's because last year the state was allowed to use Smarter Balanced Field tests with all its students. That means California got a pass from key federal accountability requirements last year—it didn't have to publicly report the test results—and now the state is getting even more leeway.

But folks in the Golden State still have a lot of work to do, the feds say, when it comes to key accountability requirements for students with severe cognitive disabilities and English Language Learners.

First, on special education: California had asked to use field tests with its most cognitively impaired students, meaning the state would not report the results of those tests publicly. No dice, the department says in its letter. We can let you have an accountability pass, they say, but you still need to show everyone how kids are actually performing on the tests. 

What's more, California needs to come up with a clear way forward when it comes to reporting the results for alternative assessments for kids with disabilities. If it doesn't outline a high-quality plan in the next 30 days, the state could find itself at risk of losing federal Title I funds for disadvantaged kids and federal funds for students in special education. 

And, when it comes to tests for English Language Learners, the state also has some work to do. California wanted to change its accountability plan for this subgroup. It asked the feds if it could set a deadline of 2017-18 for having assessments for English Language Learners aligned to the state's standards fully in place.

That's way too long from now, the feds said. "Having an aligned assessment is vital to ensure that schools, teachers, and parents have accurate information upon which to base decisions about instruction and supports for individual students," the letter said. 

California needs to outline a plan for having assessments for English Language Learners fully in place by 2016-17, or it could be at risk of losing federal funds for those kids, too. 

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