The Untold Story of Statewide Student Assessments in Nebraska: What Does It Augur For ESEA Reauthorization?

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 18, 2015


      • Former Nebraska Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen was making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week (along with the National Education Association) arguing for a testing system very much like the one Nebraska had up until 2008.
      • The problem is that they told only part of the story. Much of what was untold is reminiscent of the chasm now between teachers and civil rights leaders on the issue of student testing in the debate over the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
      • Before 2008, Nebraska’s “STARS” system allowed each of the state’s 288 school districts to devise their own reading and math assessments and set their own benchmarks for student performance.
      • Christensen quit his post when the state’s unicameral legislature enacted a statewide assessment system by a 2:1 vote margin
      • Christensen quit even though the legislation that established statewide assessments allowed districts to continue to use STARS (or any other system) if they wanted for their own local purposes.
      • Part of Christensen’s objection to statewide testing seems to stem from his belief that historically disadvantaged groups of students should not be held to the same high standards as their more privileged peers.
      • In comments he made earlier this week to Alyson Klein of Education Week, Christensen seemed to blame former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for Nebraska’s move to statewide assessments.
      • We decided to check the historical record. While its clear Spellings did apply such pressure, Christensen does his fellow Cornhuskers a great disservice in attributing the vote in favor of statewide testing to the spinelessness of state legislators.
      • In reality, there was at least as much support for statewide testing coming from the ground up as from the top down.

Why Nebraska Moved to A Statewide Assessment System

There were 3 key reasons cited by state legislators and local community leaders for establishing statewide testing:

· Psychometrics, i.e., the need for comparable information across all of Nebraska’s 288 school districts;

· Equity and Fairness, i.e., the principle that all students be held to the same benchmarks for success regardless of where they happen to live.

· Capacity, i.e., the technical and administrative burden on teachers and administrators to devise and administer their own assessments. Many teachers wanted to spend less time on testing and more on instruction.

The day that LB 1157 passed, the Nebraska Herald summarized the forces that led to final passage this way:

“The vote sets the stage for Nebraska to end a testing system that differs from school district to school district. Critics say that [the current] system keeps schools from being fully accountable to the public because a school district can be accurately compared only to itself….

“…LB 1157 won broad support among urban senators from Omaha and Lincoln and senators from Nebraska’s immigration centers, such as Grand Island and Schuyler. The entire Education Committee also voted in support.”

The Kearney Hub newspaper surmised that:

“Nebraska lawmakers’ own push for standardized testing comes as the demographics of many Nebraska schools are changing because of immigration and as educators and policymakers are working to raise the lagging achievement of poor and minority students.”

At a hearing on LB 1157, in February 2008, Senator Ron Raikes of Lincoln spoke in favor of the statewide testing bill saying:

“We can and should have a system where districts appropriately use local assessment without the burden placed on teachers to become assessment experts. I envision a system that, once developed, opens a rich set of information about education that helps the state partner with local districts in serving at-risk students, and better addresses the achievement gap. I envision that researchers and policymakers will be able to answer complex questions about the achievement of students in our state.”

Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a civil rights activist considered to be one of Nebraska’s most prominent African-American leaders, was quoted in favor of LB 1557 stating that:

“[T]here may have been a time when local assessments were appropriate, but that time has passed. ‘If these students would stay in the town they were raised in, that would be fine, because they would only be competing against each other. But because students now move to other communities or into other states and countries once they reach adulthood, they must be competitive globally.”

During floor debate on LB 1157, Senator Chambers also said:

“People get misinformation on this floor and they read it, and it shows that they don’t know what the bill is, they don’t know what they’re reading is misinformation…Somebody from NEA gave them a canned statement and said, read that, and they read it and cannot explain it, cannot discuss it, have not analyzed it. And these are the ones who are saying, we don’t need to have a way to measure what our children are being taught in school. I want mine to be subjected to a rigorous curriculum and I want them to know and be able to compete with children who go to school anywhere.”

Senator Greg Adams of York, a former teacher, was quoted in favor of LB 1557, stating that:

“The problem lies in the amount of work it takes to develop and validate that [local] assessment. One of my questions was always, how valid are they? If I wanted to compare myself to the school down the road, we’re not comparing apples to apples, and that becomes problematic.” Adams also said that LB1157 would reduce work for teachers.

During floor debate on LB 1157, Senator William Avery of Lincoln stated:

“LB1157 has several advantages over the current system. It will reduce the amount of time that teachers must devote to testing and reporting to the State Department of Education. And this leaves more time for teachers to teach…

“A second advantage, it would create some uniformity of standards and tests. The current system of local assessments measure widely different standards, use a variety of different proficiency definitions, and vary in interpretations of what constitutes passing scores. That seems to me not to make any sense.”

State Board of Education Member Jim Scheer was quoted in an article in Education Week in March of 2008 stating that:

“[M]oving to a statewide assessment program would reduce the burden on teachers who may like the [local] tests but who find it burdensome”…“They feel like they’ve become more administrators than teachers because of the [amount] of paperwork that they have to do,” [vii]

Of LB 1157, Andrew Rikli, the director of administrative services for the 6,000-student Westside Community Schools in Omaha said:

“This is a huge relief to me and other districts…Developing these assessments, scoring these assessments, and revising these assessments is incredibly time-consuming and requires an incredible level of expertise.”

Rikli also said the statewide tests would provide a standard by which districts could measure their students’ performance against that of students in other districts.

“If we’re serious about improving student achievement and evaluating our programs, how can we possibly have an objective opinion without a common metric?”

According to Omaha Public Schools attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda:

“[W]hat we found doing research is that one school district that said, here are all our proficient kids, another school district would have called them beginning, and another school district would have called them advanced on the same exact numbers, which is ludicrous.”

report by The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School claims that LB 1157 was instrumental in the push for 11 school districts in metropolitan Omaha to enter into an inter-district socioeconomic desegregation “Learning Community” plan:

“The legislation requiring a uniform system of standards and accountability, according to many interviewed, was key in marshalling support for the Learning Community among legislators and the business community.”