Idaho drops test, but process questioned

Board president cites cost savings

From the Spokesman-Review

Betsy Z. Russell
Staff writer
December 12, 2007

BOISE – Idaho ninth-graders won’t take the state’s standardized tests this spring because of a budget shortfall, the state Board of Education announced this week.

However, the board hasn’t taken a vote to make that change, and discussed the matter during a closed session at its Pocatello board meeting last Thursday in apparent violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law, which allows closed meetings only for specific purposes.

The testing change is controversial because students must pass the 10th-grade version of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test to graduate from high school.

“It seems kind of ludicrous when as sophomores the test starts to count in earnest, they give them a year off as freshmen,” said state Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Goedde added that eliminating the ninth-grade test is “not one of those items that’s allowed in executive session. … It would have been much better if the discussion had been held in open session and the public would have had a chance to hear.”

Idaho will save $826,320 this year by not testing ninth-graders this spring, the board estimated. Annual testing of third- through eighth-graders is required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, though Idaho chooses to test those students twice a year, in spring and fall. The state board voted in September to eliminate second-grade testing, and some educators are pushing for the elimination of the fall tests for all grades.

Board spokesman Mark Browning said the board’s contract with an outside vendor for the testing included third- through eighth-graders as a central part of the contract, with ninth-grade testing as an add-on.

Browning said the board discussed various options in the executive session, but he said no final decision was made there.

The public announcement, however, was clear. “The Idaho State Board of Education announced today that they have eliminated the 9th-grade test as part of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test in both the spring and fall testing windows, effective immediately,” it said, adding later, “The change is due to unforeseen contractual costs associated with the test.”

Even discussion of the matter in executive session – whether or not a final decision was reached – would have violated the Open Meeting Law, since it doesn’t fall under any of the law’s exemptions from open meeting requirements. Those exemptions include hiring, firing or disciplining a public employee, conducting labor negotiations and plotting legal strategy in litigation involving the agency.

“All I know is that I have been given every assurance that nothing was discussed in there that was outside the bounds of the law,” Browning said.

The board’s attorney, Deputy Attorney General Jeff Schrader, declined to comment, referring questions to Browning.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Browning said the press release he sent out Monday might have mischaracterized the status of the decision, and that the board still might discuss the ninth-grade testing issue at its next regular meeting in January or in a special meeting before then. Current state board rules require the ninth-grade testing.

“I should have written that to say that the executive director of the office of the state board has announced that he has ordered work on the ninth-grade test to be stopped,” Browning said.

The board took no action on the ninth-grade testing issue following Thursday’s four-hour closed session, nor did the item appear on the board’s agenda for the meeting.

Four board members didn’t return a reporter’s calls Tuesday. A fifth board member, Sue Thilo of Coeur d’Alene, declined to comment on the executive session.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s office, said he couldn’t comment on whether the board had violated the law. “We have a law enforcement responsibility with regard to state agencies, so if there is a complaint, it would be our responsibility to investigate and thus inappropriate for us to comment prior to receiving any complaint,” he said.

Goedde said there was “a mess-up in the budget this year” that led to the shortfall for testing, and that he doesn’t fault the state board for canceling this spring’s ninth-grade test. “What I’m hoping is they’ll find a way to put it in the budget for next year and continue it in the budget thereafter,” he said.

Thilo said she, too, hopes ninth-grade testing can be restored in future years. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who serves on the state board, issued a statement, saying, “This is unfortunate. We understand the importance of ninth-grade testing, but like any state agency, the state Board of Education must be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars and spend within its budget. We are hopeful we will start testing ninth grade again in future years.”

The ISAT tests students on reading, language usage and math. Fifth-, seventh- and 10th-graders also are tested on science. The computerized test, which takes students about 90 minutes to complete, is used to determine whether each Idaho school is making “adequate yearly progress” under the No Child Left Behind law.

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said he missed part of the board meeting and wasn’t there when the ninth-grade testing was discussed.

From the Spokesman-Review

Not an IDOG member yet?