Duncan Threatens California With Loss of Funds if Testing is Suspended

The pending California law that would suspend the current standardized tests in schools as early as this year and replace them with Common Core-compliant computerized assessments has drawn criticism from one of the biggest supporters of standardized testing in the country – US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Duncan warned the state that if it passed the legislation, currently designated as AB 484, it risks losing federal funding.

AB 484 would advance the timetable for Common Core-based assessment adoption by one year and would allow schools to opt in to the tests as early as this spring. However, the proposal has drawn opposition from some districts around the state who worry that they will not have adequate time to prepare for the changeover. As a result, AB would make the change voluntary but at the same time, would not use the scores obtained this year – whether from the old testing system or the new – in the high-stakes decisions like teacher tenure and school rankings.

The lack of test scores attracted Duncan’s criticism.

“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,” he said in a statement.

“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.”

Duncan declined to specify what action he would take, and in fact, the federal government has no direct authority over state school systems. But the department controls billions of dollars in federal funds, which can make up about 10% of a school district’s budget. This money adds up to about $600 million a year for Los Angeles Unified, according to the district.

The Department of Education struck a similar note in its denial of a standardized testing waiver request from Texas. In Duncan’s opinion, regular assessment is just too vital to monitoring school performance to go without it for even a year. And California will get a financial reminder of this fact, if that’s what is required, Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times reports.

Later, Duncan’s spokeswoman Massie Ritsch clarified that Duncan isn’t demanding that every student in California have two sets of grades while the transition from the old exam system to the new takes place — but least one set of grades is required in order to keep federal education funding coming in.

In recent years, California has been at odds repeatedly with the Obama administration on the best approach for improving schools.

The California legislation has the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, key Democratic legislators, many school district officials, the state’s two major teachers unions and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Torlakson evinced no sign of wanting to give in.