Legislative roundup, 2.26.15: the future of the SBAC

The House and Senate education committees spent a good deal of time Thursday engaged in a nuanced debate over the future of standardized testing for Idaho students.

At issue was a State Board of Education rule dealing with how and when students would take the ISAT by Smarter Balanced assessments.

Long story short: Complexity and confusion abounded, but the debate doesn’t affect this year’s students, who will take the Common Core-aligned tests, but do not need to pass them in order to graduate.

The committee’s action also has nothing to do with graduation requirements for the class of 2016 – those students either already passed the previous version of the ISAT or are on an alternative path to graduation.

When it comes to the class of 2017 and beyond, the issue is far from settled.

Adding to the confusion, the education committees essentially rejected the same rule related to graduation requirements and the ISAT. But they did so in two slightly different ways — with provisions related to P.E. surviving the Senate committee vote, but not the House vote.

The issue is far from settled, for three reasons.

  • First, the differences between the House and Senate committee votes will, apparently, need to be reconciled and forwarded on to each chamber’s floor for consideration.
  • Second, the State Board of Education has pledged to revisit the very same issues and develop another rule that would go back before next year’s Legislature.
  • Third, the Legislature is considering a resolution and several bills designed to press for alternatives to the Smarter Balanced tests, or remove Idaho from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium entirely.

Part of the issue had to do with the newness of the ISAT – students took a “field test” version of the Common Core-aligned test last year, which didn’t count. This year’s students will take the real “operational test,” for the first time.

It’s also unclear whether students will need to pass the ISAT in the 10th grade or the 11th grade as a graduation requirement. The State Board of Education discussed 10th grade versus 11th grade requirements last week, but decided to continue the discussion. Some members said moving it to 10th grade would help alleviate overtesting high school juniors, because the SAT is also required in the 11th grade. But other members wondered whether it would still be more appropriate to test 11th-graders, because the assessment is billed as a college- and career-ready assessment and 10th-graders may not be ready.

“Until the new version of ISAT has been tested (State Board members) don’t want it to be a high-stakes test,” said Tracie Bent, the board’s chief planning and policy officer.

A week ago, the State Board approved a set of “cut scores” that will be used to determine whether students meet proficiency standards on the new tests.

In other Statehouse action Thursday:

School tax credit. The House Revenue and Taxation committee christened a new bill that would preserve a tax credit for donations to school foundations.

The new bill, like its predecessor, would make the tax credit permanent. But it includes language designed to tighten the relationship between the foundations and the districts they support. (For details, here’s a link to a blog post from Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.)

Freshman Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, had been pushing for restrictive language, saying the existing law had allowed foundations under “a huge loophole.” Revenue and Taxation voted to kill House Bill 45 — the original tax credit bill, without the restrictive language. The committee then voted to introduce the new bill.

Alternative contracts. The House voted 58-9 to approve a new form of contracting for education programs.

Meridian Republican Rep. Steven Harris pushed the bill, saying these new “pay for success” contracts would allow third-party investors and companies to bear the initial financial risk for programs started under these contracts. Under the plan, the state would not be obligated to pay for programs unless a separate third-party administrator judged the work has saved the state money. In that case, the state would repay the initial investors using money it saved trough the original program.

The Boise-based nonprofit Lee Pesky Learning Center is interested in partnering with investors to launch programs designed to improve literacy rates among elementary school children, if the bill is passed into law.

Opponents of the bill said they are concerned about establishing a new, unproven form of state contracting procedures in the wake of legal problems with the now-voided Idaho Education Network broadband contact.

Traditional state contracts would still be allowed if the bill is signed into law.

That bill next heads to the Senate.