The federal government has rejected an Arizona plan to stop requiring all districts to use the AzMerit test to track student gains.
The decision could endanger $340 million in federal aid statewide, including some $300,000 Payson schools receive in federal, Title 1 funding.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Greg Wyman said the decision won’t have much effect on Payson, since the district has no plan currently to drop the AzMerit test.
“We will continue to test using AzMerit or any other state-mandated test that is purchased. In terms of ACT or SAT testing, we will continue to offer these tests to students who need to take them for their post-secondary options.
“Many educators in the state knew that there was going to be issues with the menu of assessments and are not surprised by the decision at the federal level. The idea of a menu of assessments is politically driven and many in education were concerned and voiced their concern about this when it was passed a few years back.”
The decision by the U.S. Department of Education creates additional chaos in the wake of the Arizona Legislature’s decision last year to no longer require the state’s school districts to all use the AzMerit test, a grade by grade, nationally benchmarked test of student skills in math and English.
Instead, state lawmakers can pick from a list of tests. This includes the ACT and SAT, national tests designed for college-bound high school students. Many districts have already switched.
Payson has not decided whether to drop the AzMerit test, although officials worry the cancellation of a statewide contract will make the test unavailable.
Payson Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case has said the abandonment of the AzMerit test will sow confusion and threaten hard-won gains in student achievement, especially in grades K-8.
Payson officials also worried that dumping AzMerit will make it impossible to track student gains. Right now, year-to-year gains by individual students factor in school grades and assessments. That’s good for districts like Payson, with lots of low income families and students who start out from behind when it comes to test scores.
The letter from Assistant Secretary of Education Frank Brogan raises the stakes of the spreading confusion about state testing policy.
Brogan said ACT and SAT won’t satisfy the federal requirements for standardized tests under the federal Every Child Succeeds Act. The act requires a test that allows school-to-school comparisons.
Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman in a letter to school districts explained the latest development. She said districts who have already shifted to SAT and ACT won’t lose funding this spring as a result. She urged those districts to continue also administering the AzMerit test in grades K-9.
Losing $340 million in Title 1 funding to help schools with lots of low-income families could prove painful. Arizona relies more heavily on federal funding than most states thanks to among the lowest per-student state support in the country.
Hoffman noted it’s unclear what testing costs the state will actually cover for districts using both the SAT and AzMerit.
The state continues to negotiate with the federal department of education to determine which tests the feds will accept.
Bogan’s letter said any test must provide “valid and reliable” figures on student achievement that provide “unbiased, rational and consistent differentiation among schools within the state.” The test must also ensure special needs students and English Language Learners have equal opportunities.
Hoffman’s letter said districts must continue to use a federally approved test while the state tries to cope with rejection of the waiver request. She said the state will likely pursue a two-year extension of the existing AzMerit contract.
The state department of education now recommends all districts continue using the AzMerit for grades 3-9 and a single statewide assessment test at least once in high school. “Failure to administer the same statewide assessment in spring 2020 and beyond will result in enforcement action, including the possibility of withholding critical federal funding for low-income Title 1 schools.”
Payson relies heavily on Title 1 funding, with nearly half of the families with children in the district qualifying for free and reduced federal lunches based on family income. During the recession, the share of low-income families rose to 70 percent.
Hoffman said the state is working on a five-year plan to meet state and federal requirements for a new accountability and assessment plan.
“By working together, Arizona can develop a long-term plan that meets both federal requirements and ensures flexibility at the high-school level.”