Feds say no to testing experiment

Two districts » Utah won't be allowed to bypass NCLB
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The federal government will not let two Utah school districts experiment with a new testing system at the expense of No Child Left Behind requirements.

That means the Sevier and Juab districts might have to give up parts of the new testing system or give students both the old and the new tests.

State Superintendent Patti Harrington called it "astounding" that the U.S. Department of Education acted against the will of the Legislature, the state school board and the governor, all of whom supported trying the new system. "It appears that this administration has little regard for local and state decisions," Harrington said in a statement.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored the bill waiving state testing requirements for pilot districts, suggested the move may be retribution for Utah's public criticism of NCLB mandates. "It seems the U.S. Office of Education has a real problem in approving just about anything from Utah," he said.

State Associate Superintendent Judy Park said the state will seek permission again after Barack Obama takes office.

Utah had hoped the federal government would waive NCLB requirements so the districts could give computer adaptive tests several times a year instead of Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), which most Utah students now take at the end of each school year. Some education leaders said computer adaptive tests -- which adjust in difficulty to match students' abilities as they take them -- would provide more useful, immediate results for teachers and students than CRTs.

The two districts were to test the system this year with the idea that the state as a whole might adopt it in the future.

But Kerri Briggs of the U.S. Education Department wrote a letter to Harrington this week denying that request.

Briggs praised Utah for trying to improve its assessment system, but said the state has not proven the new tests comply with federal requirements. Though the plan gained wide approval among lawmakers, some Utah school district officials also had concerns.

Juab Superintendent Kirk Wright, however, called the decision disappointing. He said his district will try to decide whether to move forward with all the pilot tests this year. He said the district has already given computer adaptive tests once this year.

Sevier Superintendent Brent Thorne said his district has also not yet decided how to handle the denial, but the district has no immediate plans to abandon computer adaptive tests, meaning they might have to give both types of tests. "It really cuts into the instructional time," he said.