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State Senate approves bill to overhaul standardized tests

The Obama administration has threatened to withhold education funds from the state unless students, parents and school officials have access to this year's scores.

September 10, 2013

California lawmakers pushed ahead Tuesday with a new state testing plan despite a threat by the Obama administration to withhold federal education funds unless substantial changes are made.

The state Senate approved an overhaul of standardized exams by a 25-7 vote, with Democrats overwhelmingly in support. The Assembly is expected to take up the bill later this week.

The potential stakes in a standoff between the state of California and the U.S. Department of Education are high.

For top California officials, the issue is about shifting quickly to new computerized standardized tests that will be based on learning goals, called the Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states. But under that plan, no tests scores would be released this year for students, schools or school districts.

In a statement this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan objected strongly to that provision. He said parents need to know how students and schools are doing and that federal rules require that. Test scores therefore are necessary.

Duncan added that he was willing to withhold federal funds should California go forward as intended. He didn't specify how far he would go, but these dollars make up about 10% of school district budgets. In L.A. Unified, for example, the money adds up to about $600 million annually.

The proposed law, AB 484, would end the standardized exams used since 1999. There would be no scores from the new testing because it's still in a trial period. The bill could permit a further postponement of scores, if needed, for 2015.

Federal officials are asserting that the state could have continued the current testing system for most students — until results could be provided by the new test.

"Letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools' performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition," Duncan said. "No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students' achievement, you need to know how all students are doing."

The provisions of the bill enjoyed broad support when they were announced last week, including from the state's two major teacher unions, some school district officials and the Greater L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Opposition has emerged from some advocacy groups and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez).

The most important supporter, Gov. Jerry Brown, has no intention of changing course.

"We support the legislation," said Jim Evans, a spokesman for the governor. "California will continue to focus on the new and rigorous Common Core standards. There is no reason to double-test students using outdated, ineffective standards disconnected from what's taught in the classroom."

That sentiment was echoed by state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

In recent years, the Brown administration and leading Democrats have resisted key federal education initiatives, including efforts to link teacher performance evaluations to student standardized test scores.

As a consequence, the state failed to receive an exemption from onerous and costly federal rules that are holdovers from the administration of President George W. Bush under the No Child Left Behind law. And Washington rejected the state's applications for high-profile Race to the Top grants.

Federal law requires testing — and test scores — in math and English in grades three through eight and once in high school. Students also must be tested in science at three grade levels, which the California proposal includes.

But with math and English, the bill only provides state funds for testing students in one subject or the other. And districts could opt out of testing entirely in 2014, under the language in the bill.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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