Alabamians Ask; Trump Administration Enables State Control of Assessments

Alabama State Department of Education Headquarters

Alabama Superintendent Sentance sent a letter June 1, 2017, to Acting Deputy Jason Botel of the United States Department of Education (USDE) on behalf of Alabama State Board of Education that requested to substitute other assessments for Aspire.  Superintendent Sentance also had a phone conversation with Mr. Botel and other officials from the USDE. The request was denied by USDE. Sentance then told the Alabama State Board of Education in regard to the waiver, “It was pretty clear right from the start the answer was going to be no.” The Alabama State Board of Education requested that Sentance make a more formal request from the USDE. Meanwhile, Stephanie Bell and other Board members appealed to Washington officials.

That’s when Alabamians began showing their support for the State Board’s position. On June 14, Eagle Forum in a memo to the Alabama Congressional delegation wrote:

 “….we need our Congressional delegation to intervene right away.  The State Board is facing a July 1 deadline to non-renew Aspire …Because Aspire claims to be aligned with Alabama College and Career Ready (Common Core) Standards, the continued use of Aspire will lock Alabama into the failing common core system that has resulted, for example, in our NAEP scores dropping from 25th and to dead last…”

This message went to key White House and USDE staffers as well as to influential Alabama constituents. On that same day, Congressman Brooks responded and immediately sent a letter to the USDE requesting that Alabama be granted flexibility in its choices in regards to assessments. And on June 15, Betty Peters published her article: “What Do the Feds Expect Us to Do Without ESSA Waiver?” The Alabama Congressional delegation was working toward releasing a joint letter to USDE officials the word came on June 19 that USDE would be allowing the waiver.

Subsequently, the Alabama State Board of Education voted unanimously on June 21, 2017, not to renew the contract with Aspire. No replacement assessment was confirmed by the Alabama State Board of Education.  Eagle Forum will continue at every opportunity to push for the restoration of local control and academic excellence in education.

Other states will want to follow Alabama’s example and pursue their own course under an administration that in Alabama’s case showed respect for local and state control of education.

Eunie Smith is the President of Eagle Forum and Deborah Love is the Executive Director of the Eagle Forum of Alabama.

What Do the Feds Expect Us To Do Without the ESSA Waiver?

Alabama State Department of Education Headquarters

As a member of the Alabama State Board of Education, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 gave me hope that the state could finally chart its own course in education and repair the damage done by heavy-handed federal mandates on Alabama students’ learning.

One of the mandates that came from the pre-ESSA No Child Left Behind statute allowed the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to micro-manage our student assessment system. After four years of problems administering the ACT Aspire tests to students in grades three through eight and once again in grade ten, our education officials saw ESSA as an opportunity to develop a new test that would better serve students. As Alabama Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance recently told local news outlets, the ACT Aspire test “gives very little information back to schools about what is actually being tested. They don’t release test questions; that doesn’t help teachers understand what’s being asked of them as a result.”

According to a letter sent to Superintendent Sentance at the beginning of the year, it appeared that USED agreed that using the ACT Aspire was problematic. In fact, after an extensive peer review of the test, USED had concluded that the state’s use of ACT Aspire may not satisfy federal requirements, and placed a condition on the state’s receipt of $247 million in Title 1 funding: “External peer reviews and Department staff peer reviewers and Department staff evaluated Alabama’s submission of evidence about ACT Aspire and found, based on the evidence received, that the components of your assessment system meet some, but not all, of the statutory and regulatory requirements of [ESSA].”

In light of the many problems with the test—problems recognized by USED—Alabama teachers, state board members, and Superintendent Sentance reached a consensus that the contract with ACT should be ended and a better test developed. The problem we face is that a new test takes a year or more to develop and wouldn’t be available for students to take during the 2017-2018 school year to satisfy federal testing requirements. Sentance has asked USED to grant the state a waiver to administer interim assessments instead of the ACT Aspire next year while a new assessment is being developed.

It seems like a simple common sense request. After all, both USED and state officials have recognized Aspire is problematic. Yet after a conversation with Acting U. S. Deputy Jason Botel, Sentance reported to the AL state board of education that it didn’t seem likely USED would approve the waiver, stating, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be “no.”

ESSA’s supporters insisted that the bill restored control over education to the states. “With this bill,” Speaker Paul Ryan promised, “We are sending power back to the people.” ESSA author Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) exhorted state officials to test the boundaries of what they can do under ESSA. According to Education Week, Alexander told them to “assume you can do as you please, and if the U. S. Department of Education shoots down your ideas without a clear rationale, don’t take it lying down.” In fact, Alexander advised them to consider legal actions: “You can take the department to court, and I hope that you do.”

Candidate Trump ran on the issue of local control and as President has directed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to restore it. She has PROMISED to do so: “Let us continue to move power away from Washington, D.C. and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders.” Thanks to the State of Alabama, DeVos now has the opportunity to carry through on all these commitments. Either ESSA restores local control or it doesn’t. Let’s find out.

One wonders what’s really going on here. Is USED afraid that if Alabama is allowed to choose its own assessment, it might stray too far from the federal corral not only on testing but on curriculum, standards and maybe other matters down the road? Does ESSA maintain the federal padlock on the gate? Parents and other grassroots citizens warned repeatedly during consideration of ESSA that it continued the “Mother may I” approach to education policy. Were they right?

What does the USED want Alabama to do? We could be penalized for administering the Aspire test and, without a waiver, we could be penalized for replacing it with another test—“damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

Alabama Is an Example that Local Control Under ESSA Is a Sham

Photo credit: Jim Bowen (CC-By-2.0)

Tricia Powell Crain with reported last week that the Alabama State Board of Education learned at their last meeting that the U.S. Department of Education denied the state’s request to dump ACT Aspire and use interim tests next spring.

She wrote:

The U.S. Department of Education rejected Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance’s request to use different tests next spring.

Sentance and board members have expressed their dislike for the ACT Aspire in recent months and need the waiver in order to keep from having to renew the ACT Aspire contract for another year. The board must either renew or cancel the contract with ACT Aspire by July 1.

Sentance told board members he and other state education staffers held a phone conference last week with Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, Jason Botel, and other federal education officials to ask for permission to stop using the ACT Aspire.

Instead, Sentance wanted to use a series of interim tests, given throughout the 2017-2018 school year, to measure student progress and growth while Alabama decided on a new annual test to use for federal accountability.

Telling board members the phone call was “pretty unsatisfactory,” Sentance said, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be no.”

Alyson Klein at Education Week reports that the U.S. Department of Education has not made their final decision:

The U.S. Department of Education however, has a different take: They haven’t given their final answer yet.

“We have received Alabama’s formal waiver request and it is being assessed,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman.

So we are to believe Superintendant Sentance just misunderstood? It had to be pretty clear what the decision was going to be if he told the board members they said no.

Also, this is what the Trump administration considers local control? This is EXACTLY the type of authority that the Every Student Succeeds Act gave the Secretary of Education, and this power is something Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said was appropriate for the federal government.

Klein also pointed out:

It’s not a total surprise though, that the conversation may not have gone as Alabama hoped. The Every Student Succeeds Act does indeed allow states to use a series of interim—assessment-speak for short-term—tests instead of one big overall exam for accountability purposes.

But these interim tests must meet certain quality requirements, ESSA says. For instance, the onus is on the state to show that the interim tests do indeed provide the same information as a single summative score. And the tests are supposed to go through the department’s rigorous peer review process. It would be a big deal for DeVos to waive those requirements.

And it’s not clear that the interim tests Alabama was asking to use met the law’s standards. (We’ve put out a call to the Alabama Department of Education and will update if we hear back.)

We do know, however, that ACT Aspire didn’t quite meet the federal department’s requirements for tests that are rigorous and reflect state academic standards. The department said so in a recent peer-review letter.

The Trump administration has a big decision here. They can give lip service to local control, or they actually can respect it and allow Alabama to proceed.

Fordham Institutes’s PARCC v. MCAS Report Falls Short


(Pioneer Institute)  The Fordham Institute has long been at work on a study of the relative quality of tests produced by the two Common Core-aligned and federally funded consortia (PARCC and SBAC), ACT (Aspire), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (MCAS).  What Fordham has produced is only in the most superficial way an actual analysis – in fact, it reads more like propaganda and lacks the basic elements of objective research. 

It takes only a little digging under the surface to reveal pervasive conflicts of interest, a one-sided sourcing of evidence, and a research design so slanted it cannot stand against any scrutiny. In developing their supposedly analytic comparisons of PARCC, SBAC, Aspire and MCAS, the authors do not employ standard test evaluation criteria, organizations, or reviewers. Instead, they employ criteria developed by the Common Core co-copyright holder, organizations paid handsomely in the past by Common Core’s funders, and predictable reviewers who have worked for them before. The authors also fill the report with the typical vocabulary and syntax of Common Core advertising – positive-sounding adjectives and adverbs are attached to everything Common Core, and negative-sounding adjectives and adverbs are attached to the alternatives. 

No reader should take the report seriously; those who produced the report did not. Fordham Institute used to do serious work; in the area of assessments and standards, sadly, that is no longer the case.

Read a policy brief entitled “Fordham Institute’s Pretend Research” by Richard Phelps below:

Two More Smarter Balanced States Eye Making Changes

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

House Democrats in Delaware are calling for the state to stop requiring Smarter Balanced for high school juniors.  Delaware Public Media reports this week:

Ten legislators wrote a letter to Gov. Jack Markell last week, saying the SAT should be eleventh grade’s accountability exam, not Smarter Balanced.

Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-North Wilmington) was among those who signed that letter. She says too few juniors took Smarter Balanced last year — fewer than the 95 percent target at some schools.

Heffernan says that’s due in part to parent and student concerns over the test’s length and content. But she says it’s also because of the other college entrance exams, such as the SAT, ACT and AP tests, that juniors have to juggle.

“They have a big testing burden already,” Heffernan says. “And it would be a way to reduce their testing burden, but also to give us good data to be able to have educational accountability.”

Plus, she says the SAT is already required and aligned with Common Core standards, and takes half the time of Smarter Balanced.

I’d like to point out that I do not think this is an overall improvement other than it is one less assessment that juniors in Delaware would have to take. I think the new SAT is garbage, and will do nothing to break Common Core’s grip in the state. What we will see, however, is the further degrading of the argument that states are comparing apples to apples in terms of a common assessment.  I suspect we’ll see a bill drop when their legislature is in session, and I think it’s significant that Governor Markell is getting pushback from members of his own party.

In West Virginia they’re looking at ditching Smarter Balanced in favor of the ACT and ACT Aspire tests.  The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports:

Most members of the West Virginia Schools superintendent’s commission on testing want to move away from Smarter Balanced standardized exams, limit end-of-year testing in high school to only one grade and specifically explore using ACT tests as statewide assessments.

The recommendations came near the end of a nearly five-hour-long meeting that included commission members expressing worries about more students refusing to take tests this school year.

They also expressed concern about the state’s plan to give entire schools and counties A-F grades based largely on standardized tests.

The commission expressed complaints that Smarter Balanced, a Common Core-aligned math and English language arts test, isn’t an accurate gauge of student achievement, doesn’t give much reason for students to take it seriously and doesn’t provide information on what exactly students are struggling with.

Mountain State students had a 27 percent proficiency rate in math on Smarter Balanced last school year, the first year for the test statewide, and a 45 percent proficiency rate in English language arts.

“The No. 1 complaint I hear is a lack of prescriptive feedback,” said commission member Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Elementary/Middle Schools Principals Association. Fellow commission member Blaine Hess, superintendent of Jackson County Schools, noted that providing the ACT statewide would save families the cost of paying for the popular college entrance exam.

The commission — which has 26 members, although not all were present for the full meeting — is expected to meet a third and final time on Jan. 12. Final recommendations will be made to state Superintendent Michael Martirano, who will use them to advise the West Virginia Board of Education on whether to make any changes or not.

The ACT is not required by Mountain State schools, and West Virginia uses Smarter Balanced, instead of the ACT, to meet federal requirements to report test scores.

Read the rest.

Right now only Alabama and South Carolina use the ACT Aspire tests (which, yes are aligned to Common Core). There are 15 states that are still in Smarter Balanced with three affiliate members and it looks like they will continue to shrink.

School Superintendent: “Aspire Is An Autopsy”

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

ACT’s Common Core assessment, Aspire, did not receive a glowing endorsement from at least one school superintendent in Alabama.


Madison City Schools showed more than 20 percent higher proficiency than the statewide average for the 2015 ACT Aspire assessments, but Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler didn’t appear enthused when sharing the scores this week.

The reason was partly because he’s only interested in comparing Madison schools to a handful of districts in the state — Homewood City Schools’ scores were nearly identical to Madison in 2014 — and partly because he doesn’t hold Aspire assessments in high regard.

“Aspire is an autopsy,” he said. “We get them in the summer when you can’t do anything about it.”

Madison school officials said they prefer the STAR assessments, which they voluntarily give students each year. Setting higher standards than the rest of the state on taking the STAR assessments is a key reason Madison scored near the top in the nation on Aspire, they said…

…STAR is 95 percent accurate on predicting how a student will perform on Aspire, the superintendent added. He also didn’t think Aspire can fairly gauge Madison City Schools on longevity success because the district is growing by an average of 250 students per year; in other words, it doesn’t truly compare the same students annually, Fowler said.

Stacy Blair, elementary instruction specialist for the district, said Madison believes so strongly in the STAR assessments, that it had raised the proficiency standards from the state-recommended 40 percent to its own standard of 60 percent in recent years and expects to increase to 65 percent this coming year.

“STAR is big,” she said. “It’s the leader in RTI (Response to Intervention).”

Fowler said he’s not annoyed by having to give Aspire tests because it’s only a couple hours each year, but prefers STAR for its real time feedback.

Blair and Fowler also said they prefer STAR to Aspire, because the tests, given five times a year, only take 20 minutes each time. Aspire tests can take about an hour for a single subject area.

Read the rest.  Hmm… the state mandated assessment isn’t very helpful.  Anyone surprised?

It’s Official, Arkansas Is Out of PARCC

arkansas flagA couple of weeks ago Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson ordered his state out of PARCC after some back and forth with his state board of education. The board Thursday complied (not that they had any choice).  They voted 4 to 2 with two abstentions to switch to ACT and ACT Aspire.

Arkansas Online reports:

The state Board of Education voted Thursday to switch Arkansas’ public school testing program to the ACT and ACT Aspire exams, reversing course less than a month after rebuffing Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s recommendation that they do so.

But the board that voted 4-2, with two abstentions, on Thursday in favor of the change next school year to ACT from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, was a different makeup from the one that decided at a June 11 meeting to stick with PARCC.

Two members’ terms expired and a third resigned after taking a position with the Walton Foundation; all three of Hutchinson’s new appointments — Charisse Dean, Brett Williamson and Susan Chambers — voted for the ACT switch.

Hutchinson in a statement early Thursday afternoon lauded the board’s vote, saying its “willingness to move away from PARCC and seek this new contract is an indication of the Board’s continued dedication to putting Arkansas’s students first”

Next move… repeal the Common Core.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson Directs Withdraw from PARCC

arkansas-state-flagArkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson countered a move by his state’s board of education to continue its use of PARCC after rejecting his order to use ACT and ACT Aspire.  Hutchinson sent a letter to Education Commissioner Johnny Key Monday afternoon directing the Department of Education to withdraw the State of Arkansas from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Consortium since he has not reaffirmed the state’s participation since taking office.

So unless the state board of education find some loophole around PARCC’s memorandum of understanding this should be checkmate.  As I have found with state boards of education lately their hubris knows no bounds though so I’m not going to be surprised if they try to find a way around this.

Arkansas Shuts Door on PARCC

arkansas-state-flagThe Arkansas House originally passed a bill that would pull the state out of PARCC.  The Arkansas Senate amended that bill to delay PARCC’s use, but still left the door open to use it.   Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson effectively slammed the door shut.

Hutchinson launched a council on Common Core Review.  The council is still completing a “listening tour,” but submitted their first recommendation because of timing.  The recommended that Arkansas withdraw from PARCC and instead use ACT Aspire for grades 3-10 and ACT for 11th graders.

“I have accepted the recommendation of the Common Core Review Council that the state leave PARCC and use the ACT and ACT Aspire, pending state Board of Education approval and a contract agreement with ACT and ACT Aspire,” Hutchinson said in a released statement.

The Arkansas Legislature endorsed the use of the ACT and ACT Aspire assessments by the passage of Act 989, and the Governor’s office believes this transition is in keeping with the spirit of that legislation.

What I’m unclear of is why this pending state board of education approval?  The state board of education can overrule Governor and Legislature?  That seems unlikely to me, and perhaps it is just a formality, but it is something we’ll watch.

Regarding the ACT Aspire exam itself – it is the Common Core-aligned assessment created by ACT.  Alabama is the first state to adopt it.  ACT’s college entrance exam which will be used for high school juniors is not currently aligned to the Common Core.  So this is not a repeal, but it is a shift away from an assessment consortia that has been federally funded.  Also ACT does not have the memorandum of understanding with the Federal government regarding student level data like PARCC does.  So there are some positives with this move even if the fight against Common Core is not finished.

The downside is that ACT Aspire will also involve social emotional testing.  EdWeek reported back in 2012:

The assessment would look beyond academics to get a complete picture of the whole student, he says. There would be interest inventories for students, as well as assessment of behavioral skills for students and teachers to evaluate.

As with PARCC we recommend that parents refuse ACT Aspire as well.  On the bright side however PARCC is also one step closer to a collapse.

The review council will release further recommendations regarding the Common Core State Standards themselves later this summer.

Common Core Repeal Bill in Alabama Senate

Photo credit: Jim Bowen (CC-By-2.0)

Photo credit: Jim Bowen (CC-By-2.0)

SB 101 sponsored by State Senator Rusty Glover (R-Semmes) would not only end the state’s participation in the Common Core State Standards, but also involvement with Alabama’s College-and Career-Ready Standards.  Alabama’s standards include Common Core math and ELA standards, as well as, social studies and science standards.

It would also end the state’s involvement with ACT Aspire.  Alabama was an advisory member state of both PARCC and Smarter Balanced, but decided to pull out of those consortia to go with ACT’s Common Core-aligned assessment.

SB 101 requires the following:

The State of Alabama hereby terminates all plans, programs, activities, efforts, and expenditures relative to the implementation of the educational initiative commonly referred to as the Common Core State Standards, or any derivative or permutation thereof, including, but not limited to, the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards which have been adopted or may be adopted by the board or its employees, including any assessments, data collection, and instructions based on or involving any such standard or protocol.

The bill would also prevent “the adoption or implementation of any national standards from any source, or the use of any assessments aligned with them, that cede control of Alabama educational standards in any manner, including, but not limited to, the Next Generation Science Standards, History Standards, Social Studies Standards, or Sexuality Standards.”

Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh has been an obstacle to repealing Common Core in the past, but Alabama legislators enter this session on the heels of the Alabama Baptist Convention calling for their repeal.  Which needless to say will be a significant source of pressure.

The bill has been introduced in the Senate Committee on Education and Youth Affairs.

You can read the bill below.