Nebraska Addresses Federal NCLB Requirements

K-12 Testing

Nebraska is one of several states the federal government has threatened with sanctions, including losing funds to implement No Child Left Behind mandates, if they do not make changes to their assessment programs or provide additional documentation about why they should be approved. Because Nebraska is the only one with a program composed of local assessments (see Examiner, Spring 2002), the federal demands potentially undermine the most promising state assessment system in the nation. In response, FairTest has joined with other organizations in sending letters to US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings supporting Nebraska and urging the Department of Education (DOE) to use that state as a model, rather than undermine it.


The state's five-year-old School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) plan has been widely praised for using local assessments to measure student progress. Nebraska allows districts to develop their own standards, so long as they are approved by the state as equal or superior to the state's standards. In many districts, the assessments have been designed by teachers with the support of administrators, school boards and local communities. Nebraska's assessment system has been carefully reviewed and approved by some of the nation's leading measurement experts. The process of engaging classroom educators has led to steady improvement in the quality of assessment and produced stronger knowledge on the part of teachers on how to use high-quality assessment to improve student learning.


The DOE has acknowledged that Nebraska has the right under NCLB to construct a statewide system based on local assessments. In fact, in 2004 DOE issued a publication, Policymakers' Guide To 21st Century Skills, which identified Nebraska's STARS as "the Nation's most innovative assessment system" and cited it as a system designed to assess 21st century knowledge and skills.


In rejecting Nebraska's local assessment system, Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Henry L. Johnson said it was unacceptable due to concerns over academic content standards, technical quality, and other issues. Johnson threatened Nebraska with the loss of $126,741 in federal funds. Maine was the only other state to have its system rejected, but 8 other states face withholding of administrative funds and 25 more could lose aid if they do not make changes or provide requested documentation.


Nebraska Education Commissioner Douglas D. Christensen responded by saying he felt "blindsided" by the department's "mean-spirited" decision. He argued that the review panel which examined Nebraska failed to consider all the evidence and failed to grasp essential aspects of the state system. He charged DOE did not provide the state with needed information in a timely manner, making it impossible for the state to meet federal deadlines. Indeed, many officials from other rejected states have made similar charges (see "Arizona Sues Feds," this issue). It appears that Secretary Margaret Spellings is responding to election year political pressures to "crack down" on states after allowing many of them increased leeway to meet NCLB's requirements. It may also be that, despite statements approving the local assessments, the federal government either does not really want to allow them or would only approve local assessments that are as narrow and rigid as typical state systems.


Christensen promised that STARS is not endangered and said the state will continue on its course. He added, "We will challenge the findings. We have invested too much time, energy, expertise and resources to back away now." In late July, Nebraska sent supplemental materials and a timeline to the Department, requesting that STARS be approved and that no funding be withheld.


Advocates of improved assessment have taken steps to support Nebraska. For example FairTest's letter to Sec. Spellings concluded, "We believe the Department must act to support Nebraska's STARS program, rather than take steps that undermine it. The Department should further consider using Nebraska as a national model to be learned from and emulated, and should provide assistance to other states to move in directions similar to Nebraska's."


o Nebraska will hold its second annual conference on classroom assessment in September. FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill will be a keynote speaker. For more details or to register, go to
Materials from the first conference are available at


o The Nebraska Department of Education has a great deal of information about its assessment system at, under Accountability. For details on the negotiations between Nebraska and the DOE, see


o There are numerous useful articles about STARS. Phi Delta Kappan has published several, one by Chris Gallagher available for free at, and three others available at by searching for "Nebraska," "STARS" or author "Roschewski."