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State: Cheaper Tests Still Would Exceed Federal Funding

March 1, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Even if Connecticut were to cheapen its statewide school testing program, the cost of meeting a federal school reform law still would exceed the level of federal support, state officials said Tuesday in a legal brief.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed the brief with U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz, who is overseeing a state lawsuit challenging the cost of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The state contends that the federal government is going back on its promise to pay for additional student testing required under the act, but U.S. officials argue that Connecticut's tests are simply more expensive than necessary.

The U.S. Department of Education has suggested that Connecticut streamline its test and offer a less expensive version that would include only multiple-choice questions, but Blumenthal said even a simpler test would cost about $4 million more than what the federal government provides.

"No matter how you mince words or rework the math, the federal government is breaking the law - grossly shortchanging Connecticut in education funding," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal filed the suit against U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last summer, calling the federal law an unfunded mandate that will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers millions of dollars. The federal government has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case.

For 20 years, Connecticut has tested children in grades 4, 6 and 8, but No Child Left Behind also requires testing in grades 3, 5 and 7 - an expansion that state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg contends will cost millions of dollars more with little benefit.

Sternberg so far has refused to simplify the tests, as suggested by federal officials. Connecticut's Mastery Test, which is being given statewide beginning this week, includes a combination of multiple-choice questions and open-ended questions that require written answers. The open-ended questions are considerably more expensive to develop and score.

The state also includes a writing test for all test-takers even though the federal law requires testing only in reading and mathematics.

According to Tuesday's legal brief, this spring's expanded test program will cost about $14.4 million, well above the $5.8 million from the federal government for expanding the test. Even a scaled-down version of the test would cost about $9.9 million, Blumenthal told the court.

Educators and politicians across the nation are watching the case closely to gauge its impact on the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda. The law calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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