Madison changes course, and will administer ISAT

(UPDATED, 11:05 a.m., with comments from Madison superintendent Geoff Thomas.)

On the advice of their attorney — and at the direct urging of state officials, including Gov. Butch Otter —  Madison School District leaders will administer the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced this spring.

The Eastern Idaho district is dropping its plans to opt out of the new Common Core-aligned test — a move that, according to state officials, put $11.6 million of federal funding at risk.

Geoff Thomas
In a March interview, Madison School District Superintendent Geoff Thomas said the move to opt out of the ISAT would save money, minimize classroom disruption and yield real-time test results. “We found a much better test.,” he said at the time.

And with Thursday night’s 3-1 vote, Madison now enters “all-hands-on-deck mode,” Superintendent Geoff Thomas said Friday morning. District staff will spend Friday and the weekend preparing to administer the online exam. Testing will begin in Madison on Monday — two weeks after many districts began administering the new ISAT.

“We’ll do the very best we can,” Thomas said.

Trustees insisted they haven’t changed their minds about the ISAT. And they defended their original plan to replace the ISAT with what they call a “far superior” test, the Measures of Academic Progress test, or MAP.

“Madison has pushed the cause for local control of education, parent rights, and choosing a better assessment for students as far as we possibly can without invoking significant and far-reaching federal and state legal/financial sanctions,” trustees said in a statement Thursday. “Even though we are changing course, we do not regret having been the only school district nationwide to have taken a principled stand on this very important issue.”

Those potential financial sanctions center on Idaho’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

As one condition of its waiver, Idaho stipulates that 95 percent of its students will take an end-of-year assessment — and this year, the ISAT by Smarter Balanced is Idaho’s test of choice.

Madison’s original decision to opt out would have made it more difficult for the state to hit its 95 percent threshold. With some 5,200 students, Madison accounts for nearly 2 percent of Idaho’s overall enrollment of 291,000. Tim Corder, a special assistant to state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, has said the state stands to lose $11.6 million if it falls short of the 95 percent requirement.

otter1
In a letter Thursday, Gov. Butch Otter urged the Madison district to “reconsider” its decision to opt out of the ISAT.

The threat to federal funding prompted Otter to weigh in. Earlier this week, Otter called Thomas directly, urging the district to reconsider. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and I’ve never had a governor call me, about anything,” said Thomas.

Otter followed up Thursday with a letter to School Board chairman Kevin Howell.

“Superintendent Ybarra is working diligently to achieve a more flexible agreement with the (U.S. Department of Education), and is looking for the best option for a statewide assessment of our students’ progress,” Otter wrote, in a letter released by Madison trustees. “This does not, however, allow us to circumvent the current agreement.”

The lobbying from Otter caught Thomas off guard. But another key factor was the advice from the district’s legal counsel. The district was told it had no viable grounds to block the ISAT, Thomas said.

Still, trustees say they believe Ybarra and Otter have heard their concerns about the ISAT.

“They recognize that we have made our point and that they understand the need to seek an effective assessment in the future which is much less disruptive of instructional time, one that guides instruction, is more cost-efficient and much more child developmentally oriented,” trustees said.

While Madison trustees have reversed themselves on ISAT, it remains to be seen how parents will respond to the switch. Last spring, when the state ran a field test of the ISAT, only 73 percent of Madison students took the test. Thomas said the district won’t advertise the opt-out option, but he expects parents to act of their own accord.

“It’ll probably be similar to last year,” he said.

More reading

Here’s a link to our Thursday story examining the ISAT rollout statewide.

And here, in full, is the statement from Madison school trustees:

“The Madison Board of Trustees in an open, public and duly constituted Board meeting on Thursday, April 9, voted to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium Test or (SBAC).

“In February 2015, the board had voted to not pursue the SBAC and instead utilize a far superior test: the Measures of Academic Progress or MAP.

“Since that time, State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, Idaho State Department of Education officials and even Gov. Butch Otter himself have reached out to Madison asking the board to please reconsider and comply in order to meet the federal waiver demands.

“Following an extensive legal review, our attorney has indicated that the board does not have sufficient legal basis to support not administering the SBAC and has strongly advised to adhere to the waiver and administer the SBAC.

“Though the board and superintendent feel exactly the same as we did previously and the deficiencies of the SBAC have not changed, we have respectfully listened to the state officials, seriously considered their input and heeding the advice of our attorney, we are moving forward with administering the SBAC.

“During several conversations with Superintendent Ybarra and Gov. Otter we feel assured that they have heard our deep and abiding concerns about the current SBAC state assessment. They recognize that we have made our point and that they understand the need to seek an effective assessment in the future which is much less disruptive of instructional time, one that guides instruction, is more cost-efficient and much more child developmentally oriented.

“Therefore, Madison has pushed the cause for local control of education, parent rights, and choosing a better assessment for students as far as we possibly can without invoking significant and far-reaching federal and state legal/financial sanctions.

“Even though we are changing course, we do not regret having been the only school district nationwide to have taken a principled stand on this very important issue.

“Therefore, in order to meet the waiver requirements, the board has directed Superintendent Dr. Geoff Thomas to oversee administration of the SBAC to all students that are expected to take the test under the waiver.

“We recognize that there will be logistical testing difficulties as it is late in the school year and as our schools are already in the midst of the spring testing window.

“As trustees of Madison we want you to know of our continuing efforts to support what is best for children now and in the future. Throughout this endeavor, your continued demonstrated support of our efforts has been greatly appreciated. 

“All questions and concerns can be directed to your schools administrator.”