Testing Opponents Speak Out In ESEA Homestretch
Teachers, administrators, parents, and advocates nervous about federal proposals for high-stakes testing are suddenly making more noise over the issue than all the jackhammers chewing away at the nation's roadways this summer.
As students romped through sprinklers or packed for camp, critics of the proposals cranked up their lobbying efforts. Their aim is to sway members of Congress now pounding out the details of a far-reaching measure that would mandate annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8. Results from those exams would be used to reward schools that did well, expose those that didn't, and allow educational alternatives for the families of children in schools that failed to measure up.
Foes of the testing provisions, at least publicly, had a relatively quiet spring. They cleared their throats, though, once school let out.
"Yes, there's noise, there's blather, there's cacophony and rattling of all kinds going on in places where you didn't think it was going on," said Arnold Fege, the president of the Washington-based Public Advocacy for Kids and a lobbyist for parent groups in California, Massachusetts, and Virginia. "Up until this time, there were just murmurings around high-stakes testing."
House and Senate bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are currently in the hands of a conference committee. Negotiators are charged with reconciling the two houses' versions of the legislation. Among myriad other tasks, the committee must decide the criteria for determining whether states, districts, and schools are making enough academic gains to avoid intervention from the federal government.
The committee has been slow to gin up after the House and the Senate acted in late spring, and the conferees likely won't have a finished product until fall. Interested parties, particularly those uncomfortable with the proposed heavy dose of testing, have more than filled the political silence.
At first glance, it may seem that opponents of the testing provisions got a late start. After all, both houses, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, passed bills that include annual testing—the centerpiece of President Bush's effort to raise accountability.
But lobbyists cite half a dozen reasons why attacking the issue now makes sense. With the Democrats again in charge of the Senate, and with a White House rumored to be concerned about fallout from the accountability plan, opportunities exist to win changes to their liking, the lobbyists say. Though most expect an annual-testing requirement to be part of the new ESEA, they see wiggle room in deciding how to use those assessments.
"You have more intense lobbying because people understand that the consequences are going to be broad," said John F. Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee. "Instead of federal legislation affecting maybe 25 percent of kids in school, it will affect all children in elementary and secondary education."
A Hail of Darts
Leaders of the two largest teachers' unions, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer have all sounded off on the proposed accountability measures this summer, just as many other advocacy groups and individuals sent strong messages to Capitol Hill.
Bob Chase, the president of the 2.6 million-member National Education Association, in his keynote address at the union's annual meeting, wagged a finger at federal lawmakers because "the soul of education is being jettisoned in the name of testing."
Union members echoed those sentiments, raising their voices not once, not twice, but at least five times during the four days in Los Angeles. In the end, delegates permitted NEA leaders to pursue parental "opt out" provisions for testing if the subject came up in Congress.
Delegates also amended a current union policy that recommends, in part, that standardized exams not be used for high-stakes purposes. The revised policy now also opposes "federal requirements to make significant decisions about schools, teachers, or children based primarily on test scores."
Members of the American Federation of Teachers also spent time talking about standardized testing throughout their biennial professional-development conference last month.
"Testing doesn't improve achievement; it can only report on it, and, as we've seen, not always accurately," President Sandra Feldman said during her keynote speech. The 1 million-member union is continuing "to work with the Congress ... to find a way to prevent the new testing requirements from undermining, rather than supporting, teaching and learning," she said.
Mr. Romer of Los Angeles—a former Colorado governor and general chairman of the Democratic National Committee—voiced frustration about the pending bills during a panel discussion held in Washington last month.
"Be careful about unintended consequences," he warned. "If you get this too prescriptive, you'll have people out there gaming the system. First of all, they will lower the definition of what's proficient. And that's just crucial."
Too Little, Too Late?
But why are such passionate messages being sent so late in the legislative process?
"It was hard to get people to respond immediately to [the testing issue] because a lot of them were worried about vouchers" being added into the bills, said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group lobbying on the proposed legislation.
Even when that threat had passed, education groups were, for the most part, subdued on the issue, Mr. Neill said. None wanted to appear a foe of politically popular concepts like accountability and high standards, he said.
"Once the deal was struck, a lot of groups were not necessarily happy with it, but decided there was nothing they could do to stop it," Mr. Neill said. "It is now slowly dawning on people that ... this is what's happening. There is, at this point, a sense of dismay and fear."
Whispers that the White House has recently become concerned about the impact of the legislation have energized the advocacy groups, he added.
However, Sandy Kress, the president's chief education adviser, was quick to note in an interview last week that the administration has never wavered on the necessity of standardized annual testing as a key component in the accountability plan.
Meanwhile, word that Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., wants to emphasize the use of multiple measures in assessment has also given hope to those concerned about the testing requirements, said Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Education Trust. That Washington-based nonpartisan organization, which promotes high achievement for poor and minority students, supports testing with significant consequences tied to the results.
Ms. Wilkins' take on opponents' approach this summer: "You can't get rid of annual testing, but you could add enough things on to mute the effects of tests that measure how well schools are doing."
Some groups may have waited until this phase to argue the complicated testing issues because they figured few lawmakers would take the time to understand such intricacies, said Mr. Fege.
"There is always a strategy that says that the best time to deal with an issue is not when the bill is on the House or Senate floor, but when it is in conference committee," he said. "There is a smaller group of people to focus on, and they are much more vulnerable to pressure."
No matter how much lobbying takes place over the coming weeks, annual testing will remain a fundamental part of the plan, said Jeff Simering, the director of legislation for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban school systems.
"I don't think anybody thinks we're not going to have annual testing in grades 3-8," Mr. Simering said. "But this is the endgame. Now is your opportunity to make some inroads."
Senior Editor Lynn Olson and Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid also contributed to this report.
Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 8