Wisconsin Assessment Letter

December 15, 2000

Honorable John T. Benson
State Superintendent
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
P.O. Box 7841
Madison, WI 53702

Dear John,

I want to follow up our recent conversations regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s review of Wisconsins Title I assessment system. Both the initial conference call with our respective staffs and the follow-up meeting you and I had at the CCSSO meeting were extremely productive. I greatly appreciate the cooperative spirit and frank approach you and your staff have taken during these discussions and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the same spirit.

As we discussed, there are several aspects of Wisconsin’s assessment system that do not meet the requirements of Section 1111(b)(3) and 1116(a) of Title I. These must be addressed in order for Wisconsin to remain eligible to receive Title I funds. In particular, Wisconsin must address the following issues.

Alignment of the State assessment(s) with State standards.

Title I requires that State assessments be aligned with challenging content and student performance standards established by the State. This requirement is intended to help ensure that the tests used to hold schools accountable are valid indicators of what students are expected to learn in each state. Although the U.S. Department of Education does not review the actual standards and assessments themselves, the Department does require States to demonstrate that their assessments adequately address their standards.

Wisconsin does not meet this requirement. The State relies exclusively on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, which is the Terra Nova, for Title I and State accountability purposes. The State’s own alignment studies show that the Terra Nova addresses only 41.2% to 64.7% of the state’s content standards, depending on the subject area and grade level. In addition, a significant number of the standards are assessed by only one test item, and a number of test items are counted as addressing multiple standards. Consequently, Wisconsin’s assessment system does not reflect the breadth and depth of the State’s academic standards, and fails to measure one-third to more than one-half of what Wisconsin students are expected to learn. It can not provide parents, teachers and students with valid information on the progress students are making toward meeting state standards. The Terra Nova does provide important information on student achievement, but as the sole measure of student achievement it does not provide an adequate basis for holding schools accountable for helping students meet State standards. This is a key requirement in Title I and an important component of each State’s efforts to raise academic standards.

Wisconsin is not required to stop relying on the Terra Nova in order to comply with Title I. Rather, it must find a way to augment this test with other measures to provide more valid measurement of student performance against the State’s standards.

Many states have elected to develop assessments specifically aligned with the State standards in an effort to assure that virtually all of the State’s standards are included in the assessment. This approach is an acceptable method of meeting the Title I requirements, but certainly not the only approach available to Wisconsin. Missouri and Delaware have taken a different approach. By combining a commercial, norm-referenced test with additional items designed to assure alignment with their standards, both States have satisfied the Title I requirement for an aligned system of standards and assessments. Missouri uses the Terra Nova and Delaware uses the Stanford 9. Both states report national percentile scores as well as standards-based scores and use items from the norm-referenced test to support both reports. Both states have virtually 100% coverage of their respective standards, as well as assessments that reflect the particular emphasis each state devotes to different subdomains and topics within their standards. As a result, parents, students, teachers and other educators, as well as the public at large, can tell how well students perform compared with both national norms and the state’s standards. In addition, both states report that teacher participation in the development of test blueprints, standard setting, item writing and scoring has been a valuable professional development experience. At your request, our office will be pleased to help you and other key education officials learn more about these state assessment systems.

The law requires annual assessment of all students served by Title I in both mathematics and reading or language arts, using measures that are aligned with state standards and that assess higher order thinking skills and understanding. Wisconsin could choose to satisfy only the minimum requirements by implementing assessments fully aligned with state standards in reading/language arts and mathematics alone, and using only these assessments as the basis for monitoring school quality under Title I. Of course, a broader assessment program and a single accountability system provide greater coherence and consistent focus for educational reform.

Including all students in Wisconsin’s assessment and accountability system

The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that all students are held to the same high standards and appropriately assessed against those standards; and to ensure that the indicators used to hold schools accountable include performance data on all students in the grades being assessed.

Limited English proficient students

Title I requires that state assessment systems provide for the participation of virtually all students in the grades assessed and use their scores to evaluate school progress. Wisconsin does not fully meet this requirement for students with Limited English proficiency. While State policy requires the assessment of LEP students, in practice approximately 40% of the LEP students in each grade tested are not included in the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam. This high exclusion rate apparently results from the State’s practice of permitting local exemption of LEP students from the State assessment unless they have attained the highest levels of English proficiency—levels that appear to be higher than most other states require. As a result, schools are not held publicly accountable for the progress of LEP students toward meeting academic standards despite their obligation to report on the academic achievement of all LEP students in the grades assessed, even those excluded from the WKCE.

In our discussions you indicated a willingness to modify Wisconsin’s exclusion practices to permit the appropriate inclusion of more LEP students in the assessment. To increase the participation of LEP students in the regular assessment while assuring equity across schools and districts within the state, Wisconsin needs a uniform standard for exempting individual students that is applied consistently at the local level. This could be accomplished by either defining a single set of decision rules that must be applied in all cases, or disseminating state-defined criteria to guide local decisions and then monitoring local decisions to assure consistency in the application of the criteria. Please provide us with documentation of how you plan to maximize the participation of LEP students in the regular assessment.

To monitor the progress of LEP students who do not participate in the regular assessment, we also encourage you to consider publicly reporting results from either the alternate assessment that is required for all LEP students at proficiency levels 1, 2, and 3 or MECCA (Measuring Essential Communication in the Content Areas). Though this step is not required, we see great potential in the use of these classroom performance measures. A state may use classroom performance measures as part of the assessment system if those measures are valid, reliable, and hold LEP students to the same high standards as other students and if scores from those measures will be included in the assessment system for purposes of public reporting and school and district accountability.

We look forward with interest to receiving your plan to maximize participation of LEP students in the assessments and school accountability system.

Students with disabilities

The Title I statute requires full participation of students with disabilities in the State assessment and accountability system. Wisconsin has made a significant effort to increase the number of students with disabilities who participate in the regular assessment. Substantial improvement has occurred and I am certain that the state is determined to sustain or even improve the current levels of participation.

For the 1% to 2% of students that are not able to participate in the regular assessment, even with accommodations Wisconsin has devoted significant resources to development of local alternate assessment activities. As we reminded all States earlier this year, alternate assessments must be valid, reliable, and, to the maximum extent appropriate, aligned to State content and performance standards. In addition, States must monitor and collect data from school districts to ensure the proper use of alternate assessments; they must publicly report the results of alternate assessments; and they must integrate the results of alternate assessments into their accountability systems.

Wisconsin does not currently meet these requirements. There are, however, several ways that Wisconsin could build on work already done to satisfy the Title I requirement for inclusion of all students with disabilities in the assessment system. One option is to identify some portion of the existing alternate assessment procedures as a common core of learning expected of all students who are unable to participate in the general education assessment, and report results only on this core. Alternatively, Wisconsin could choose to monitor local implementation of current individualized assessment practices in terms of the degree to which IEP goals that are linked to State standards have been met.

We look forward to receiving your documentation of meeting requirements for the Wisconsin alternate assessment. If additional time is needed to complete data analyses, we will be happy to negotiate a timeline for completion. It is not possible, however, for this office to waive timeline requirements under IDEA.

As a result of the changes discussed above, virtually all students will be included in the Wisconsin assessment system and, consequently, disparities between the number of students tested and the number of students enrolled will practically be eliminated. Many states provide an appeals process for schools identified as Needs Improvement under Title I simply because of the complexity of a comprehensive assessment system. If Wisconsin will continue to offer schools the option of recalculating the Continuous Progress Indicator (CPI) under certain conditions, please provide a description of how the procedure will operate.

During the final assessment review in August, the documentation of Wisconsin’s assessment system was carefully reviewed by a group of external reviewers with strong expertise and experience in the design of State assessment systems. Their comments are enclosed. We hope this information provides useful feedback as you are making decisions about the assessment system.

Based on the experience of other states, it appears that it will be virtually impossible for Wisconsin to meet the requirement for aligned assessments by the spring 2001 deadline. In order to maintain eligibility for Title I funding, it will therefore be necessary for Wisconsin to enter into a compliance agreement with the Department of Education. A compliance agreement is a statutory remedy authorized by § 457 of the General Education Provisions Act for situations in which a State or local agency cannot meet statutory requirements within the timeframe specified by law. Its purpose is to enable a grantee to remain eligible to receive funding while coming into full compliance with applicable requirements as soon as feasible but no longer than three years.

We are ready to work with Wisconsin to reach agreement on the terms of the compliance agreement as quickly as possible. After we have agreed to tentative terms, the Department must hold a hearing to explore why full compliance with the Title I final assessment requirements is not feasible until a future date. The State, affected students and their parents, and other interested parties may participate. If, after the hearing, it is still evident that full compliance is genuinely not feasible until a future date, this office will make written findings to that effect and will publish those findings, along with the substance of the compliance agreements in the Federal Register.

I would like to meet with you within the next 30 days to discuss the compliance agreements. If you would like to talk further about this, please do not hesitate to call me.


Michael Cohen


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