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

Photo credit: Jim Bowen (CC-By-2.0)

Tricia Powell Crain with AL.com 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.