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A recent report on the Wyoming Department of Education’s work on a statewide educational accountability system noted delays and lack of compliance in preparing state assessment tests.

The department has been slow to complete contracts and work to align existing state assessments to new requirements, according to the report. The state also faces a fine because the state Education Department has made no progress to gain federal approval to replace the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students with the ACT for 11th-grade students.

The state Legislature tasked two nonpartisan Legislative Service Office liaisons to monitor actions required to carry out the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act. The liaisons presented a report Nov. 14 to the Legislature’s Select Committee on Education Accountability that details lack of progress and capability by Superintendent Cindy Hill and her department to fulfill legislatively-mandated duties.

During the Nov. 14 meeting, Hill said much of the information presented was not accurate, and asked for equal time at the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 12. A Nov. 16 press release from the department indicated WDE officials are documenting “inaccuracies in the report,” and they plan to present them on Dec. 12.

In the release, Hill called the report “conjecture” and complained WDE officials did not have a chance to review it before it was presented to legislators. The first page of the report stated, “This is version one of our final report,” and noted that responses from Hill and other officials would be included in other versions.

Throughout the report, the liaisons describe a significant loss of expertise since November 2010 contributing to WDE’s problems.

Notably, the department has struggled to establish a writing test, dubbed Students Assessment of Writing Skills. Problems with aligning SAWS with the national Common Core State Standards and accountability act requirements substantially delayed the test’s construction, liaisons said in the presentation. Wyoming adopted the Common Core standards in April.

The National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment, a firm the state hired to help with accountability work, and an LSO liaison had provided guidance in May for the SAWS alignment.

But in September, WDE officials sought to start the writing assessment one year later than the accountability act requires. WDE officials implied the delay was necessary because the act didn’t match Common Core standards for third-grade writing.

WDE officials eventually continued work on the fifth- and seventh-grade SAWS without further direction from the board or the consultant firm. Those tests, according to the report, do meet state and national requirements, but it questioned the availability of those tests in spring 2013.

The third-grade SAWS still does not include some required components, and WDE’s plans for the exam continue to be noncompliant, according to the report.

Other testing issues in the report included:

Unnecessary delays in completing an April contract with Educational Testing Services to replace Pearson for administering PAWS.

A statutory compliance issue when WDE officials asked the testing company to develop a PAWS test item that wasn’t multiple choice, as required by the Legislature.

After the accountability committee clarified legislative intent and directed the department in July, department officials complied with the requirement.

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11th-grade issues

The state faces a fine from the U.S. Department of Education because WDE has not secured permission to switch PAWS for the ACT college entrance exam as the state assessment for 11th-graders. The Select Committee of Accountability in Education clarified in July its intention to replace PAWS with a more meaningful test and that there is no funding in the budget for an 11th-grade PAWS.

Lack of progress to gain federal permission to switch the tests followed initial contract delays.

In July, the select committee authorized consultants to help the department “aggressively” pursue approval from the federal department, which called for alignment studies and a peer review after an initial request. The department has accomplished no tasks toward that goal, according to the report.

“It appears that WDE is almost working against approval of the ACT instead of vigorously trying to advocate for this system,” the consultant firm concluded.

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That consultant, Scott Marion of the National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment, told legislators he’s seen few cases where states made changes without federal approval, and they were penalized about $60,000.

U.S. Department of Education officials have clearly stated they require a peer review before switching the tests and suggested Wyoming administer both the PAWS and ACT to generate data. Benchmarks for the two tests must be equivalent because the federal No Child Left Behind Act currently uses PAWS to track Wyoming’s progress.

Liaisons presenting the report told legislators they could not find sufficient evidence that the department advised its federal counterpart that juniors in Wyoming have taken the PAWS and ACT since 2008, according to the report. Despite the availability of information to complete required data linking for the two tests, it’s not been done.

The type of linking required isn’t difficult and, “... because of the available data and the legislative will to move in this direction, the linking study should have been conducted prior to submission of a request,” the report reads.

The WDE planned to hire a consultant for that work, pointing again to staffing issues.

NCIEA officials agreed to link the tests if the department agrees to specified conditions, according to the report. Those include agreeing to a time line for tasks, Marion told legislators.

A sense of obstructionism

“To be fair, the U.S. department hasn’t exactly broken any speed records in their responses to the Wyoming department,” Marion said, adding the Wyoming department hasn’t been aggressive in seeking approval. “It feels like they’re digging for reasons why this shouldn’t go forward.”

It’s critical a peer-review submission is made prior to testing, liaison Michael Flicek told legislators. There is no evidence that any work for that has been completed, he added.

“The [U.S.] Department of Education’s position on this is very understandable,” he added. “My conclusion is they’ve seen no evidence of serious intent or good faith effort to successfully accomplish this change in testing.”

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Reach education reporter Elysia Conner at 307-266-0593 or elysia.conner@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @ElysiaConner.

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