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North Dakota Is First State to Let Districts Use ACT Instead of State Exam

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Kirsten-Baesler-North-Dakota.jpgIn the first move of its kind, the U.S. Department of Education has granted North Dakota permission to use a new kind of testing flexibility in federal law: the right to let school districts substitute the ACT for the state's own required high school assessment.

North Dakota officials announced the decision Wednesday, after receiving a permission-granting letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

With permission in hand, 17 school districts in North Dakota—which together enroll 3,735 11th grade students, half of the state's high school juniors—will administer the ACT to all 11th graders this spring, and use it to report achievement for accountability. Students in those districts will not have to take the state's required high school exam.

In all other North Dakota districts, students in grades 3-8 and 10 will be required to take the North Dakota State Assessment, a new suite of tests making their debut this spring. Eleventh grade students in those districts will also take the ACT, which is required of all students in the state.

That additional testing burden is what led North Dakota to ask for U.S. Education Department permission to take advantage of a provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law. The law says that if states allow it, districts can stop giving their state's required high school test, and give a "nationally recognized" high school test instead—meaning the SAT or ACT.

"Any time we can take fewer tests in high school, that means our students are spending more time learning in our classrooms, rather than being tested," Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota's state superintendent of education, said in a statement Wednesday.

First Denial, Then Approval

A few states have been exploring the option, but until North Dakota, none had cemented an agreement to do it. Georgia has an assessment task force that's exploring the option, and is awaiting results of two studies to inform its thinking. Florida's plans are up in the air after a study it commissioned found that letting districts use the SAT or ACT instead of state tests might not produce comparable test results.  

Getting the plan approved in North Dakota was a bumpy road. Despite high-profile rhetoric from federal policymakers that ESSA provided new testing flexibility to states, the U.S. Department of Education turned down North Dakota's request for a waiver to give its districts the choice of using the ACT this spring.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Baesler, Jason Botel, the federal department's point man on ESSA, cited that law and related regulations that require states to undergo a detailed technical review before giving districts the choice of using the SAT or ACT instead of state-mandated high school tests.

That review would evaluate whether a college-admission exam yields valid and reliable achievement data that are also comparable to the state tests other districts would be using. The review would also examine whether all students who need accommodations have access to them on both kinds of tests.

Though it's enshrined in federal law, the requirement that a state like North Dakota undergo technical review before giving a new test for the first time is the opposite of current practice. Currently, when a state adopts a new test, it administers the test for one year in order to gather the evidence it needs to submit in the federal "peer review" process. The U.S. Department of Education then informs the state whether it has been fully approved to use the test.

Full approval is rare, however; typically, states are told their tests "substantially" or "partially" meet federal requirements, and must submit more evidence to satisfy peer reviewers. During that approval process—which can take months, and sometimes years—states get to keep using their assessments.

'Excessive Testing' Argument

North Dakota was aware of the law's prior-review requirement, so officials there knew they would need a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education in order to give the ACT this spring, along with the new suite of state tests.

In a Nov. 29 letter applying for that waiver, North Dakota Assistant Superintendent Laurie Matzke noted the conflict between common peer-review practice and the requirements in ESSA and related regulations, saying that it's been "common and accepted practice" for states to use a new test, and then undergo review.

She argued that if North Dakota had to wait another year to let districts opt for the ACT, it would disrupt the continuity of testing data, since half the state's high school students would have to take the new 10th grade test this spring, and then switch to the ACT in 2019.

Matzke pointed out that refusing the waiver would extend the "excessive testing" that's been the target of nationwide debate. And she argued that denying the waiver would contradict the spirit of ESSA, which "was created with emphasis on state and local control." "[I]t should be within the authority of the state to make this decision," Matzke said in her letter.

In an interview with Education Week late last month, Baesler noted the "baffling irony" in the law and regulations. If a state wants to adopt the SAT or ACT as its statewide high school exam, it can do so without submitting the test to review before it's administered for the first time. The prior review is required only if a state wants to let districts substitute one of those tests for its statewide test.

"If we just told all our districts that the ACT was our statewide test, we would have been able to do peer review after the first administration [of the test]," she said. "But we surveyed districts, and they wanted the choice, and we felt it was important for them to have that choice."

Baesler kept up conversations with Botel, and eventually, they settled on another way to get North Dakota's plan approved: a little-noticed provision in federal law that allows top officials to use their "transitional authority" to ensure an "orderly transition" to a new law. 

In his letter, Botel said that since 2017-18 is the first year ESSA is being fully implemented, "it is reasonable" that North Dakota "had not had time to fully complete" the technical review of its plan. He approved its plan to let districts choose their high school tests for 2017-18, but said the state must submit to full technical review before the next testing cycle in the spring of 2019.

It wasn't immediately clear whether a reluctance to use waivers played a role in the U.S. Education Department's decision. The department did not respond to repeated requests for interviews on North Dakota's waiver application. 

But the Education Department under President Barack Obama was criticized in some quarters for over-using waivers to advance its policy agenda. Education Secretary Arne Duncan allowed states to bypass key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act if they embraced specific department policies, including adopting "college and career ready" academic standards, and evaluating teachers in part on student test scores.

For more stories about federal review of states' tests, see:

PARCC Common-Core Test Gets Federal Approval

U.S. Ed. Dept. Defers Approval of ACT for Accountability in Wyoming, Wisconsin

State Tests Due Fresh Scrutiny as Peer Review Relaunches

Photo: North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler announces a task force to look into assessment options in 2015 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. --Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP-File

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