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Arizona schools at risk of losing federal funds over standardized tests

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Editor’s note: This story has been revised to add an assessment from a lawmaker and education officials on the effect the federal government’s actions will have on Arizona. 

The federal government has threatened to withhold upwards of $300 million of Arizona’s school funding if the Arizona Department of Education allows schools to choose their own standardized tests for students.

With bipartisan support, lawmakers in 2016 approved a law allowing school districts to offer a “menu of assessments” to choose from, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than one statewide standardized test, currently the AZMerit test.

The law allowed high schools to make the switch this year, and many school districts have already moved away from the AZMerit test in favor of the ACT or SAT.  Another portion of the law would have allowed schools teaching grades 3-8 to adopt a menu of assessments next year.

But the state law goes against the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, and the U.S. Department of Education denied Arizona’s request for a waiver to that law to allow the state to implement its “menu of assessments.”

That means all Arizona students will still be required to take the AZMerit, or a similar standardized test, at least once in high school. While they will still be allowed to offer additional tests such as the ACT or SAT, as some districts always have, high schools will not be allowed to drop the AZmerit test altogether.

That creates a problem for school districts that already have dropped the test, though officials at the Arizona Department of Education said that those tests can be made up in the future. A ninth grader at a school district that doesn’t offer the AZmerit test this year, can take the test next year, for example.

Arizona’s law also violates ESSA by allowing 3-8 schools to choose their own assessment in the 2019-2020 school year. State education officials had previously acknowledged that the law was a violation of the federal law, but had held out hopes that US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would give the state an exemption.

Those conflicts have put in jeopardy millions of dollars of school funding, US Department of Education Assistant Secretary Frank Brogan told state officials in a March 28 letter.

“I have therefore determined to place ADE’s fiscal year 2018 Title I Part A grant awards on ‘high risk’ status immediately,” Brogan, wrote.

Title I Part A funds provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families, which if lost would be significant, but Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman told Arizona Capitol Times that threat is really just the federal government’s attempt to get our attention.

“The sky is not falling,” he said.

Kotterman said the threat of taking money from the state is the only mechanism the U.S. Department of Education has to bring the state into compliance.

Arizona Department of Education officials also downplayed the fears about what the federal letter means, writing to local school officials that “there is no impact for the current school year.” The state Department of Education said all districts and charters must continue with their spring testing as planned, including high schools that selected ACT or SAT from the menu.

Lawmakers say a fix is already in the works. SB 1346, sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, that would give the state Board of Education authority to decide which grades could take alternate assessments, giving officials more flexibility to ensure it complies with ESSA.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she doesn’t see any real risk to Title I funding and that things are going to be fine.

“This is just the U.S. Department of Education getting a little over-exuberant and Kathy Hoffman freaking out because she’s new in there. I think we’re going to be fine. We’re working on it,” Cobb said.

Kotterman said the legislation would solve most of the problem by giving the board the flexibility to designate 10th, 11th and 12th grades as those that the menu of assessments applies to. He said if the bill goes through as is, the Legislature has done its job by essentially putting it in the Board of Education’s hands.

But therein lies a political problem of convincing the Legislature to put a system in place that doesn’t meet muster.

“This Legislature doesn’t like to be told by the federal government what to do,” Kotterman said, adding there’s the extra drawback of AZMerit’s unpopularity with lawmakers and school districts.

But the prospect of losing millions in key funding will likely weigh heavily on how this is dealt with, and it’s not a complete loss under the feds’ response.

“We get to preserve the menu option for 10th and 11th grades, which really when people talk about the menu, that’s what they talk about,” he said. “Some members may have heartburn about the fact that the federal government said ‘no way’ to the 3-8 menu. But frankly… no one in this state is ready for that anyway.”

Joraanstad said no one was ready to roll out the menu for grades 3-8 because no one really knew what choices would be included, leaving elementary schools immensely uncertain heading into 2020. Now, they can at least deal with the devil they know, he said, referring to AZMerit and its unclear future.

That’s still a step in Joraanstad’s eyes.

“If AZMerit had gone away, it’s not as if you can go to some assessment store in the sky and just pick an Arizona-standards aligned assessment off the shelf,” he said. “This at least lends clarity to a situation that was totally lacking in clarity.”

Katie Campbell contributed to this story.

2 comments

  1. This laissez-fare attitude towards funding is a huge part of the reason Arizona schools rank at the bottom of a National score.

  2. The US Department of Education can only take away up to 2% of the federal Title 1 funds that state departments of education use for administration.

    From the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):

    “ESSA 1111(a)(7) FAILURE TO MEET REQUIREMENTS.—If a State fails to meet any of the requirements of this section [1111(a) State Plans], the Secretary may withhold funds for STATE ADMINISTRATION under this part until the Secretary determines that the State has fulfilled those requirements”

    So AZ would lose very little money if they don’t comply.

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