State Senate approves student testing plan over federal objections

California lawmakers pushed ahead Tuesday with a new state testing plan despite a threat by the Obama administration to withhold federal education funds unless substantial changes were made.

The state Senate approved the overhaul on a 25-7 vote, with Democrats overwhelmingly in support.

AB 484 would end the paper-and-pencil testing system used since 1999. In its place would be computerized tests based on new Common Core learning goals approved by 45 states.

With the new test entering a trial period, there would be no student or school scores released for 2014. The bill could permit a further postponement of scores, if needed, for 2015.

The U.S. Department of Education asserted this week that the state could have continued the current testing regime for most students until results could be provided by the new test.

But a majority of state senators were unmoved.

"It’s unreasonable to require double testing … for the sake of testing,” said state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) during Tuesday's floor debate in Sacramento. Doing so would send "a confusing message to teachers, parents and students."

"The state can no longer fund outdated assessments,” she added, while making the switch “to the assessments of the future.”

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) pointed out that the test score hiatus was only temporary. 

It was left to Senate Republicans to support the position of the Obama administration. Sen. Robert Huff (R-Diamond Bar) said the legislation "guts our testing system.”

"How do we close the achievement gap if we don’t know what that gap is?” he said.

"Those who do not want any accountability … are happy to get rid of" the old tests and test scores, said Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) "They are the advocates of mediocrity." 

And Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) worried that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would make good on his threat to withhold federal funds. Besides, Wyland said, California was not ready for a full changeover to the new test.

The potential stakes in a standoff between the state and the U.S. Department of Education are high. Duncan didn’t specify how far he would go, but federal dollars make up about 10% of school district budgets. In L.A. Unified, for example, the money adds up to about $600 million annually.

Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) was not cowed. 

"We need to ... pass this bill, call Arne Duncan an idiot, and move forward and educate children in the way we know how to do," Wright said.

The Assembly is expected to take up the bill later this week.


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