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Arizona Education Officials Mull Plan to Change Testing

Education officials are expected to consider a plan to get Arizona out of a jam with the federal government by changing the state's testing regime for high school students, at least for the next two years.

The federal government has threatened to withhold upward of $300 million of Arizona's school funding if the Arizona Department of Education allows schools to choose their own standardized tests for students, according to a recent report by the Arizona Capitol Times.

A proposed plan to be considered by the state Board of Education on Thursday would retain use of the current AZMerit accountability exam in a revised form, rolling back a decision to allow school districts to instead use a variety of assessments, the Arizona Daily Star reported earlier this week. That so-called menu of assessments became a problem when federal officials denied Arizona's request for a waiver from a federal requirement for one statewide standardized test.

If the state fails to remedy the situation, Title I funds — federal money set aside to fund programs at schools serving primarily lower-income students — could be at risk, the U.S. Department of Education said.

In the short term, Arizona State Board of Education officials suggest renewing AZMerit, the current accountability exam, for the next two years, but it will look slightly different than it does now.

The updated test will likely shift from assessing students on a course-by-course basis to assessing them based on the knowledge they should have acquired the year they take the test, according to deputy board director Catcher Baden.

Students will take the updated assessment only one time, throughout their high school career — likely at the end of their freshman or sophomore year, Baden told the board during a special meeting on Monday. They currently take AZMerit exams their freshman through junior years.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Acts, or ESSA, states must prove the college-prep menu assessment they want to use over the prescribed statewide assessment aligns with the state's academic standards, addresses those standards, is as or more rigorous than the existing assessment and produces "valid and reliable" student achievement data, among other feats.

"ADE (Arizona Department of Education) has not provided evidence that it has completed any of this work," the U.S. Department of Education said in a letter sent to the state Department of Education.

ADE did not prove to the Department of Education that the ACT and SAT — two exams permitted under Arizona's menu — could produce valid and reliable data on student academic achievement across the state, the letter continued.

The department also failed to prove if accommodations offered by the ACT and SAT denied students with disabilities or English-language learners "any of the benefits from participation in the assessment" that students without disabilities or non-English learners get from them, among other issues.

The suggested changes would put AZMerit into compliance with ESSA standards, Baden said. And sticking with a statewide standardized test for a couple years would give the board time to iron out a menu of assessments that complies with federal standards, he added.

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