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Betsy DeVosK-12

California replaced an old science test despite the Obama administration's warnings. DeVos' crew says it's OK

 (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

When the state of California asked the Obama administration for permission to drop an old science test in favor of a new one that the state was putting into place, the answer — more than once — was no.

The test waiver issue, technical as it may seem, is one example of how California, despite fighting the Trump administration on many fronts, is benefiting in certain ways from the change in regime.

The Trump administration is big on cutting regulations and red tape.

Betsy DeVos' insistence that states and school districts should be in charge of education means that states have more flexibility than they did a year ago.

That comes in handy on the science test front. 

Some context: California is piloting a new science test, aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of benchmarks emphasizing lab work and hands-on learning and instruction.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and other education officials have said it's a waste of time and money to continue administering the state's old science test, which is based on different standards, from 1998. But federal law requires that there be regular, fully reported standardized testing — and a new test that hasn't been fully implemented yet technically doesn't fit that bill. 

When Torlakson asked the Obama administration for permission to get out of the double-testing requirement, the administration refused it because the new test's scores won't be counted at first. California had an opportunity to appeal the decision.

Last December, the Obama administration said no a second time, again stating that the problem was that the new test didn't meet federal requirement at this early stage because results weren't being reported yet to schools, parents and taxpayers.

Torlakson said the decision made no sense, and that he was seriously considering dropping the old tests regardless of the official decision — in part because of the changing of the guard in Washington. Ultimately, California did not administer the old science tests in the 2016-2017 school year.

Last month, Betsy DeVos' Education Department gave California officials the answer they originally wanted.

According to a letter from acting Assistant Education Secretary Jason Botel, what the state did last year is OK. It has retroactive permission to have used the new test without reporting test scores for last year — by which time, if all goes smoothly, the state will be ready to start reporting results.

"I believe the waiver will benefit school children in California," Botel wrote.

Botel did write that the state could be penalized for being out of compliance with federal law if it does not administer and report the scores of a science exam this school year. That could lead to the loss of some federal money, he wrote.

The letter was posted as part of an agenda item for Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting.

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