State could lose federal school funding over test switch

April 6, 2019

PHOENIX — Arizona is in danger of losing $340 million in federal cash because of a decision by state lawmakers to allow schools to offer an alternative to the AzMERIT standardized tests.

In a letter to state education officials, Frank Brogan, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states administer standardized tests that meet certain requirements. That includes an ability to compare results among school districts.

But Brogan said that the decision to permit schools to offer alternatives, like the SAT and the ACT college tests, does not comply. So he rejected the state’s bid for a waiver of the requirements.

The decision won’t immediately affect the school districts that already have opted for an alternative to AzMERIT, including the Tucson, Chandler, Flowing Wells, Flagstaff, Kingman and Yuma. Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said they remain free to use the tests this spring.

Swiat said, though, they have to return to the AzMERIT test next year unless the department and the state Board of Education can convince federal officials to change their minds.

They can continue to offer the other tests, he said.

At this point, however, Swiat said the federal law requires that there be a standardized test that meets the federal requirements in at least one year of high school. AzMERIT meets that mandate.

In a joint letter to school officials, state schools chief Kathy Hoffman and Lucas Narducci, president of the state Board of Education, said the plan at this point is to require all schools to administer the AzMERIT test to students in Grades 3 through 8 and again in 9th grade.

“That will meet federal requirements,’’ they said. It also will meet one of the original goals of allowing alternatives to AzMERIT by eliminating that test in Grades 10 and 11.

Hoffman and Narducci said that schools remain free to choose assessments from that alternate menu. But they said it has to be in addition to the AzMERIT test. And they said it is “undecided’’ whether the state will pay to administer any other test.

What makes Brogan’s denial crucial is that he is threatening to place Arizona’s Title I grants into “high risk’’ status. It is that which endangers the $340 million the state gets in that type of federal aid this year.

Swiat, however, said plans are underway to prevent that from happening. He said the state Board of Education is set to meet later this month to decide what to do next.

But Swiat conceded that his agency had not provided to federal officials the information they said they needed to approve an alternative to the AzMERIT test before schools were given the go-ahead to start offering those options. He said, though, that both the state Department of Education and the Board of Education were instead counting on Arizona getting the waiver from having to provide all that -- the waiver that was just denied.

As for deciding to let the schools use the alternate tests even before a federal decision on the waiver, Swiat said there was “an earnest attempt to follow the directive of the Legislature’’ which in 2016 directed that there be a menu of alternate assessments.

Arizona has offered a standardized test for years.

At one point it was AIMS, short for Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. Of note is that high schoolers were required to get passing grades to get a diploma.

That was replaced in 2015 by AzMERIT, which stands for Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching. One particular difference is that it was not linked to high school graduation.

The following year Arizona lawmakers agreed to be the first in the nation to allow schools choose from a “menu’’ of standardized tests for high schools.

Based on that, the state Board of Education came up with a list of permitted options. That includes the SAT and ACT.

This is the first year that the substitute tests were allowed.

State education officials submitted a request to federal officials to allow the use of the two tests as an alternative to AzMERIT. But Brogan, in his letter to Hoffman, said the request falls short.

It starts, he said, with a requirement that the state show that nationally recognized assessments like the SAT and ACT meet all federal requirements before being administered. That, said Brogan was not done here.

He said the state is required to conduct a technical review of the alternatives to endure that the tests are aligned with the state’s challenging academic standards, address the depth and breadth of those standards, and is “equivalent to or more rigorous’’ than the existing test in areas like covering of academic content and the difficulty of the assessment.

And then there’s the mandate to show the alternatives produce “valid and reliable data on student academic achievement’’ that can be compared to all high schools and that they “provide unbiased, rational and consistent differentiation among schools within the state.’’

“Arizona Department of Education has not provided evidence that it has completed any of this work,’’ Brogan wrote. And what information was provided, he said, “does not sufficiently demonstrate that the SAT and ACT are comparable regarding academic content coverage and alignment to the state assessment.’’

That is only part of the issue.

For example, Brogan said, there needs to be some assurance that students with disabilities or those classified as English learners have the same opportunities as others.

And Brogan said it appears that the system would allow just some high schools within a district to use an alternative. That, he said, is not permitted.