Column: The test still matters

Arizona has made a number of policy decisions signaling our commitment to ensuring that high school students graduate truly prepared for college or career. Our students are making some of the greatest academic gains on NAEP in the country and graduation rates continue to improve.

But the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) is looking to stymie further growth through government overreach. Last week the USDOE denied Arizona’s waiver for flexibility in using a Menu of Assessments, instead of just the statewide AzMERIT high school assessment, for federal accountability. They also said the current state AzMERIT End-of-Course examinations in high school do not meet their regulations either.

Before I go any further, let me give you some background.

Arizona’s “Menu of Assessments” law has been on the books since 2016 and includes trusted and reliable exams like Cambridge, SAT and ACT, which schools across the country use to determine the honest likelihood of student success in college. Our public schools have embraced the “Menu of Assessments” strategy that allows them to choose a test other than the state’s AzMERIT assessment. This gives Arizona schools the opportunity to meet and exceed federal testing expectations while also reducing duplicative testing in schools that gave other tests on top of the AzMERIT.

Over the same time period, the federal government adopted the Every Student Succeeds Act (EESA), which was touted as a way to return more control and flexibility over K-12 education to the states and allow for more innovation. The intent of the law was to limit USDOE’s role under ESSA to one that provides guidance and support for states.

Ironically, the USDOE waiver denial runs counter to the larger intent of the law. Additionally, their rationale creates challenges for Arizona regulators, schools and students.

For starters, two years ago, the USDOE approved Arizona’s state ESSA plan, which included the current high school AzMERIT End-of-Course examinations. It is poor form for the federal government to now reverse course, especially given that students are taking these exams right now as part of our rigorous accountability system.

As for the denial to use a “Menu of Assessments” instead of AzMERIT, much of the letter from USDOE cites failures of process to achieve approval. While we are pleased that there does appear to be a path forward to Menu at a later date, the idea that the federal government expects our state agencies to spend valuable time jumping through bureaucratic hurdles to prove that these exams, accepted by colleges and universities across the country, align with college readiness and rigor is laughable. This is an unfortunate example of the federal government exerting its influence over K-12 education in a way that is heavy-handed rather than supportive, and that ignores the will of local and state-level stakeholders.

The letter’s implication that states ought to calibrate their academic standards to fit a particular exam is equally troubling. The opposite is true. Given that Arizona’s standards are supposed to culminate in college-ready and workforce-ready students, we believe these high-quality assessments are all aligned to our standards as well as to the spirit of the federal law to better support all students.

This push for a one-size-fits-all high school testing regime runs counter to Arizona’s robust school choice environment and demand from the field and families. At A for Arizona, we have learned from the state’s highest performing, high poverty school principals and system leaders that they want the opportunity to choose the test that best aligns with the material taught in their classrooms and that has relevance for students and parents based on course sequencing and rigor.

One of those school partners is University High School Principal Amy Cislak whose students just took the ACT last week. After the exams, I asked her how state testing went in the inaugural year of Menu of Assessments.

“UHS juniors took the ACT last Tuesday. What happened after that three-hour exam? We got back to teaching and learning. If our students were still required to take AzMERIT, they would be testing for three more weeks,” she said. “The decision to select from the Menu of Assessments was a great decision for our high school students. It needs to continue so we can do what’s best for our kids.”

It is ironic that the department led by school choice champion Secretary Betsy DeVos would attempt to stand in the way of our efforts to innovate in order to better serve all Arizona students and force us to measure in the tired one-size-fits-some model rather than cheer our progress. Lastly, it is egregious that the USDOE has threated to withhold federal Title I dollars from Arizona schools and irresponsible to deliver this news while Arizona educators and students are in the middle of testing season. We appreciate the quick work by the Arizona Department of Education – under the leadership of new Superintendent Kathy Hoffman – and the State Board of Education, to develop a solution that works for Arizona and a plan to secure our state Title I funding.

Emily Anne Gullickson

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