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Ed. Dept. Announces $8.6 Million Grant Competition for States to Improve Testing

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UPDATE

States that want to ditch "fill-in-the-bubble" tests and replace them with new competency-based tests, take stock of how many tests they offer and get rid of those that are redundant, improve scoring, or otherwise bolster their assessment systems will get the chance, thanks to a new grant competition the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday.

The Enhanced Assessment Grants competition will allow states to compete for $8.6 million in funding to help improve their testing systems.

This competition is yet another step in the Obama administration's "testing action plan", announced last fall. Applications are due Sept. 22, and the winners will be announced in January. The department is expecting that there will be somewhere in the range of three to six winners.

The Obama administration spent its first six years arguably doubling down on high-stakes standardized tests, by calling on states to tie growth in test scores to teacher evaluations, principal hirings and firings, and more. But about two years ago, the administration began to tilt away from those policies, and towards a push for better, fewer, and smarter tests. And the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has followed suit. 

How does this new competition dovetail with language in the Every Student Succeeds Act allowing a small handful of states to get out from under the requirement that all students take the same test?

"There are some similarities," said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. on the call with reporters.

But he stressed that the grant competition is more immediate than the flexibility, since it will begin this fall. Most experts expect that the innovative assessment flexibility probably won't be offered until well into the new year.

King said that states that win grants could use them to find "new and creative ways" of testing students that "might involve simulations or projects" that could "potentially replace annual one-time assessments."

ESSA_button.jpgThis obviously isn't first time that the feds have poured resources into helping states revamp their assessment systems.

Back in 2010, Obama administration doled out $360 million to two consortia to develop what was supposed to be a new kind of richer, more performance-based test aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

So is the testing competition a sign that the feds have lost confidence in the tests that came out of that effort, PARCC and Smarter Balanced? After all, many states who initially joined those consortia have since backed out.

Nope, said Roberto Rodriguez, a senior White House aide on education issues.

"This is not a reflection on that particular investment," he said. "We're seeing really great progress. This is not meant to replace that large scale assessment work, it's meant to augment and enhance." And he noted that improving testing is an "iterative" process, with constant refining and tweaking along the way. 

UPDATE: The Council of Chief State School Officers praised the new grant program. "Students, parents and educators deserve assessments that are high-quality, meaningful and necessary. That's why state chiefs are committed to assessments that are aligned to high academic standards and offer information to help students improve academically," said Chris Minnich, the group's executive director in a statement. "I am pleased the U.S. Department of Education is offering support in these endeavors." 

But the National Center on Fair & Open Testing says this program is "far too little, way too late. ... After wasting $360 million of taxpayer money to fund two Common Core testing consortia whose products most states have rejected, the Obama Administration is now touting a much smaller $8.6 million pot to divvy up among jurisdictions that want to improve assessment. In fact, many states and districts have already responded to grassroots assessment reform pressure by cutting back testing requirements and reducing high-stakes misuses," the organization wrote.


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