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NH gets approval to pilot competence-based testing

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 09. 2015 11:15PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire will be the first state in the nation to try a new approach to measuring student progress — one that relies more on demonstrating competence and less on standardized tests — thanks to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal officials have signed off on a proposal developed by the state Department of Education in cooperation with local educators, called Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) in four pilot school districts: Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping and Souhegan, which covers Amherst and Mont Vernon.

The program allows the districts to reduce the frequency of standardized testing in favor of locally managed assessments based on multi-day tasks that will be built into a student’s day-to-day work.

The four districts worked closely with N.H. Department of Education over the past three years to develop the program. The DOE invited all districts in the state to participate in 2012, starting with teacher training workshops in performance-based assessments.

Several school districts, including Manchester, participated in the initial training and early workshops, but later declined to participate in the pilot project, said N.H. Board of Education member Bill Duncan, who has closely followed the process.

“Many districts expressed interest, but over time more and more dropped out as they saw how deep the demands were,” Duncan said. “This is a lot of extra work for the districts.”

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who has led the effort to have the district go its own way on statewide assessment testing, expressed disappointment on Monday that he wasn’t made aware of the program.

And at Monday night’s school board meeting, news of the program drew an angry response from Gatsas.

Gatsas pointed to a news release released last week by the governor’s office that described the program as one of the state education department’s “strategies to reduce over-testing.”

“I don’t know, I think that’s what we were fighting about,” Gatsas said. “And I think they said if we didn’t (administer the test) they’d take our money away.”

District administrators maintained that they were unaware that the program was being developed.

At Gatsas’ urging, the board passed a motion to send a letter to Education Commissioner Virginia Barry formally requesting that she appear before the board to answer questions about the program and other concerns.

Performance projects

The U.S. DOE approval, announced last Thursday, means the four districts in the pilot program will not be required to administer the Smarter Balanced standardized test seven times, in grades three through eight, and again in high school, as a condition of federal funding. Instead, students in those districts will take the Smarter Balanced assessment once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school.

In the years that students don’t take the statewide assessment, PACE districts will use multi-day tasks and hands-on projects that could be done individually or as part of a group. The performance projects will be developed by the districts subject to approval by the DOE.

The students will be asked to apply what they have learned. For example, in English, middle school students might submit research papers showing that they know how to analyze and present information from many sources.

In math, fourth-graders might design and cost out a new park and write a letter to their Board of Selectmen arguing their perspective based on their calculations.

“Sanborn Regional believes this is the right work at the right time,” said Brian Blake, superintendent of the Sanborn Regional School District, which includes Kingston, Newton and Fremont.

“PACE allows us to build rigorous assessments into everyday student learning rather than making the assessments an isolated, special event with no immediate results.”

Educators throughout the state and across the country will be watching the New Hampshire experience closely, as opposition to “over-testing” in general and the Smarter Balanced test in particular, continues to grow.

Manchester tried to opt out of the Smarter Balanced test but concerns about the loss of federal funding stymied that effort.

Instead, some parents in the district may now file requests with their local school principals to exempt their children from the standardized test.

State education officials said the PACE pilot is part of a strategy to reduce over-testing and develop alternatives to Smarter Balanced. The state is also in the final stages of making it possible for New Hampshire high schools to administer the College Board’s SAT as the high school assessment instead of Smarter Balanced.

Paving the way?

According to a statement issued by the state DOE, “The department considers this pilot a study that will provide valuable research data into how testing will work in the future. It is not a waiver and does not change the requirement that all other districts in New Hampshire participate in the Smarter Balanced statewide assessment that New Hampshire schools will soon begin to administer. The PACE pilot will pave the way for other school districts to participate in the future if they are able to meet qualifications.”

Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison at the conservative policy group Cornerstone-NH, said the PACE pilot does not address concerns raised by opponents of Smarter Balanced testing and the related Common Core educational standards.

“I think the fact that we now have to go to the U.S. Department of Education to ask permission on how to test our students just highlights the significant problems we face in education today,” she said.

Banfield said Cornerstone and other opponents of Common Core advocate a return to basics, as represented in legislation filed by State Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, and approved by the state Senate Thursday on a voice vote, requiring public schools to continue teaching cursive and multiplication tables.

“Competency-based education is a workforce training model that has already been tried in other states,” she said. “It’s been called Mastery Learning, 21st Century Skills, Outcome Based Education, Standards Based Education and School to Work. Where is the evidence that those reforms improved literacy?”

Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Siefer contributed to this report.

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