What Do the Feds Expect Us To Do Without the ESSA Waiver?

Alabama State Department of Education Headquarters

As a member of the Alabama State Board of Education, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 gave me hope that the state could finally chart its own course in education and repair the damage done by heavy-handed federal mandates on Alabama students’ learning.

One of the mandates that came from the pre-ESSA No Child Left Behind statute allowed the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to micro-manage our student assessment system. After four years of problems administering the ACT Aspire tests to students in grades three through eight and once again in grade ten, our education officials saw ESSA as an opportunity to develop a new test that would better serve students. As Alabama Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance recently told local news outlets, the ACT Aspire test “gives very little information back to schools about what is actually being tested. They don’t release test questions; that doesn’t help teachers understand what’s being asked of them as a result.”

According to a letter sent to Superintendent Sentance at the beginning of the year, it appeared that USED agreed that using the ACT Aspire was problematic. In fact, after an extensive peer review of the test, USED had concluded that the state’s use of ACT Aspire may not satisfy federal requirements, and placed a condition on the state’s receipt of $247 million in Title 1 funding: “External peer reviews and Department staff peer reviewers and Department staff evaluated Alabama’s submission of evidence about ACT Aspire and found, based on the evidence received, that the components of your assessment system meet some, but not all, of the statutory and regulatory requirements of [ESSA].”

In light of the many problems with the test—problems recognized by USED—Alabama teachers, state board members, and Superintendent Sentance reached a consensus that the contract with ACT should be ended and a better test developed. The problem we face is that a new test takes a year or more to develop and wouldn’t be available for students to take during the 2017-2018 school year to satisfy federal testing requirements. Sentance has asked USED to grant the state a waiver to administer interim assessments instead of the ACT Aspire next year while a new assessment is being developed.

It seems like a simple common sense request. After all, both USED and state officials have recognized Aspire is problematic. Yet after a conversation with Acting U. S. Deputy Jason Botel, Sentance reported to the AL state board of education that it didn’t seem likely USED would approve the waiver, stating, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be “no.”

ESSA’s supporters insisted that the bill restored control over education to the states. “With this bill,” Speaker Paul Ryan promised, “We are sending power back to the people.” ESSA author Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) exhorted state officials to test the boundaries of what they can do under ESSA. According to Education Week, Alexander told them to “assume you can do as you please, and if the U. S. Department of Education shoots down your ideas without a clear rationale, don’t take it lying down.” In fact, Alexander advised them to consider legal actions: “You can take the department to court, and I hope that you do.”

Candidate Trump ran on the issue of local control and as President has directed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to restore it. She has PROMISED to do so: “Let us continue to move power away from Washington, D.C. and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders.” Thanks to the State of Alabama, DeVos now has the opportunity to carry through on all these commitments. Either ESSA restores local control or it doesn’t. Let’s find out.

One wonders what’s really going on here. Is USED afraid that if Alabama is allowed to choose its own assessment, it might stray too far from the federal corral not only on testing but on curriculum, standards and maybe other matters down the road? Does ESSA maintain the federal padlock on the gate? Parents and other grassroots citizens warned repeatedly during consideration of ESSA that it continued the “Mother may I” approach to education policy. Were they right?

What does the USED want Alabama to do? We could be penalized for administering the Aspire test and, without a waiver, we could be penalized for replacing it with another test—“damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”