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U.S. secretary of education opposes California's testing plan

The nation's top education official threatened Monday to withhold federal funds if California lawmakers approved pending legislation to revamp the state's standardized testing system.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued the warning as AB 484 awaits a full vote of the Assembly and state Senate.

The proposed law would end the standardized exams used since 1999 and replace them next spring with a computerized system. The purpose is to advance new learning goals, called the Common Core standards, that have been adopted by 45 states.

California would be moving up its timetable for the computerized tests by a year, leaving some school districts scrambling to prepare. The plan also would result in the suspension of test scores for at least a year during a trial run of the new exams.

The lack of test scores attracted Duncan's criticism.

"Letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools’ performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition," he said in a statement. "No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students’ achievement, you need to know how all students are doing."

Duncan declined to specify what action he would take, and in fact, the federal government has no direct authority over state school systems. But the department controls billions of dollars in federal funds, which can make up about 10% of a school district's budget. This money adds up to about $600 million a year for Los Angeles Unified, according to the district.

"If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds," Duncan said.

The education secretary isn't demanding that every eligible student have test scores during the transition from old to new tests, said spokesman Massie Ritsch. But students either need to be participating in the official field test of the new exam or to be taking tests that will result in scores.

Federal law requires testing students in math and English in grades three through eight and once in high school. Students also must be tested in science at three grade levels.

The California plan maintains the minimum requirements for science, but students would be tested in either math or English. And no scores would be issued, which means that scores could not be used to evaluate and compare teachers and schools. 

In recent years, California has been at odds repeatedly with the Obama administration on the best approach for improving schools. 

The California legislation has the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, key Democratic legislators, many school district officials, the state's two major teachers unions and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Torlakson evinced no sign of wanting to give in.

“Our goals for 21st century learning, and the road ahead, are clear," he said. "We won’t reach them by continuing to look in the rearview mirror with outdated tests, no matter how it sits with officials in Washington."

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy also opposes the legislation in its current form, in large measure because it would not pay for testing all students in math and English.

"I hope our governor can solve this," he said of the looming impasse with federal officials. "He has been steadfast in his leadership on these issues." 

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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