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Partnership opened on student testing

3 N.E. states join forces to obey law

Tight on money and the manpower to do it alone, three of New England's smallest states are developing common standardized tests in a first-of-a-kind partnership in the nation.

New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont teamed up to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping education law that requires annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8.

Yet the three states also are among those nationwide that have questioned the costs of the act's stringent requirements. Fearful of funding any of the federal testing requirements, the New Hampshire Legislature cut $3 million from its state testing program last year, forcing the state Department of Education to eliminate the writing, science, and social studies components of its assessment tests this year.

The three states, calling themselves the New England Compact, will try out the exams for reading and math in October and will test more than 208,000 students in grades 3 through 8 starting in December 2005. They have contracted with Measured Progress of Dover, N.H., for $33.4 million over the next six years. Rhode Island officials estimate they will save $5 million through the combined effort. New Hampshire and Vermont have not yet calculated an overall savings, but state education officials say they could reduce per-student testing costs from $22 to approximately $12.

Peter McWalters, Rhode Island's education commissioner, said he believes other smaller states could join the consortium or start their own, particularly if they are in another geographic region of the country. However, he said he does not see a movement developing towards a single national test. States whose school-overhaul efforts hang on their testing system will not want to scrap them, McWalters said.

Massachusetts, which requires students to pass its 10th-grade exam to receive a high school diploma, opted not to join the partnership. The state was farther ahead than the others in meeting the federal requirements, said Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

''We need to add a couple tests," she said. ''We're more than halfway there."

The No Child Left Behind Act was unveiled shortly after President Bush took office. At the time, lawmakers and federal education officials discussed the idea of states combining resources to administer the tests. But the federal government shortened the timeline for states to comply with the law, making it difficult for collaboration, said David Shreve, head of the education committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C.

''It's always harder to collaborate on something than doing it yourself," Shreve said. ''It's easier for me to clean my kitchen than to get my 12-year-old daughter to help me out."

The three states spent all of last year comparing their standards in reading, writing, and math. Their academic standards, fortunately, had a lot of overlap -- the benefits of more than a decade of national education reform.

The three states are also developing future combined tests for science and a high-school level exam. The US Department of Education is assisting the states with grant money to develop the testing system.

''It's smart," said Darla Marburger, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the office of elementary and secondary education. ''It makes sense to work together."

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