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May 11. 2014 9:05PM

Nashua Common Core delay could jeopardize funding

The Board of Education does not have the authority to delay Common Core-based assessment tests and could jeopardize federal and state funding, or trigger a court order for participation, if Nashua does not begin the testing in the spring of 2015, according to the school district’s lawyer.

The Board of Education will review that legal opinion tonight, at 7 p.m., at its regular meeting at Nashua High School North.

Board members asked for school district lawyer Stephen Bennett’s advice after board member Sandra Ziehm proposed delaying the Smarter Balance Assessment tests for two years during a meeting at the end of March. Over the past six months, similar motions have been made and supported by board members who are concerned that teachers and students have not had enough time to prepare for the tests, and educational publishers designing and writing the tests have not yet worked out all the bugs and kinks.

According to Bennett, state law requires all students to participate in an annual statewide assessment test, and while individual students may opt out, the law doesn’t provide any type of exemption for entire districts. However, the law does seem to leave some room for the State Commissioner of Education to allow students to take another state’s assessment test as an alternative.

And the law also requires “widespread participation” in the establishment of a statewide improvement and assessment program including input from, “Educators at all levels, business people, government officials, community representatives, and parents.”

Opponents of Common Core-related education reforms have repeatedly complained that many changes taking place in local schools are the result of decisions made at the state level with minimal input from local school boards, teachers and community members.

BOE members also questioned if they could be exempt from the Smarter Balance assessment tests because it violates the state constitution’s ban on unfunded mandates. Smarter Balance assessment tests are taken online, and board members have raised concerns about whether Nashua’s technology and infrastructure are able to support the online testing, and whether the district will need to spend more money on those resources.

According to Bennett, it is unlikely that a court would see the requirement to participate in the Smarter Balance tests as an unfunded mandate.

“The requirement to use the Smarter Balance Assessment does not create a new program or responsibilities,” wrote Bennett in his six-page opinion. “The fact that the district may have to increase its expenditures related to the statewide assessment does not, in itself, create an unfunded mandate.”

In addition to Bennett’s opinion, board members will also review a summary of opinions and reactions from teachers and administrators who were involved in last month’s Smarter Balance field test. Students in different grades at Dr. Crisp, Mount Pleasant, Ledge Street and New Searles elementary schools and Pennichuck and Fairgrounds middle schools took Smarter Balance practice tests in April.

Some teachers and staff found the Smarter Balance tests were “age appropriate,” more engaging than the NECAP tests and involved “higher-level thinking skills.”

However, others felt the tests were long and tedious, directions were confusing, and that students lacked the necessary technology skills for Smarter Balance assessments. Some teachers felt the new tests were not developmentally appropriate and may frustrate or overwhelm students.

btaormina@newstote.com


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