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California Expands Field-Testing Plans as Part of Waiver Request

California, which got into a big dust-up with the U.S. Department of Education over its spring testing plans, has revised its approach as part of an application for a federal double-testing waiver.

Announcing their change in plans today, Golden State officials said they're now aiming to involve 95 percent of students in required grades in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium's field tests in both mathematics and English/language arts in the spring of 2014.

That's a significant switch from California's previous plan, which would have tested students in either math or literacy, but not both. That's what ticked off U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and made him threaten to withhold a portion of California's Title I money. What he needed, he said, was for every student in tested grades to take either the Smarter Balanced field test, or California's current test, in both math and English/language arts.

"These field tests simply make good sense, and expanding them to include both subjects for most students makes even better sense—in contrast to 'double testing' students, which makes little sense at all," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.

The catch, of course, is that because field tests are by definition not in their final, operational form yet, they won't produce scores that can be used for accountability. Guidance issued by the federal Education Department for its "double-testing flexibility" said states can set aside their own tests to use field tests created by Smarter Balanced or the other federally funded assessment consortium, PARCC, or can use a combination of field tests and their current tests. Montana already won such a waiver. The deadline for states to submit applications is Nov. 22.

California's revised plan, which is being submitted to the department as a double-testing flexibility waiver request, would involve all students in grades 3-8 and 11, and a "small sample" of those in grades 9 and 10 in the Smarter Balanced field test. Ninety-five percent of the students would take "a sampling" of test items for both content areas, and one performance task from one content area. The rest will take the test in only one subject or the other.

Torlakson said in the press release that after hearing districts express interest in the field tests, the state worked with testmaker ETS and the American Institutes for Research to come up with a way to involve more students. 

A state department of education spokeswoman said that the costs of expanding the field testing won't be much higher than the original, more limited plan because of the sampling design of the new plan.

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