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Published in Print: January 14, 2015, as Mandatory State Testing on Thin Ice

NCLB Rewrite Could Target Mandate on Annual Tests

Changes in NCLB law eyed

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For more than a decade, even amid big revisions to the original No Child Left Behind Act, one thing has remained constant: States have required students to take annual tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Now, as a long-stalled reauthorization of the law gets underway in a newly Republican-controlled Congress, that could be changing.

There’s been a reshuffling of the political landscape that’s aligned GOP interests in scaling back the federal role in K-12 education with support from some education organizations in reducing the number of tests.

At the same time, the civil rights, disabilities, and business groups that came together to help pass the NCLB law 13 years ago, and which remain deeply invested in testing as a crucial element in accountability for vulnerable groups of students, are in search of new congressional champions. And the Obama administration, which put annual assessments at the heart of its signature initiatives, is moving deeper into lame-duck status.

Key Players

Republican leaders in Congress have made reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a top education priority in the 114th Congress. Here’s where some pivotal lawmakers and advocacy groups stand on the contentious issue of making major revisions to the testing regime in the law, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act:

CONGRESSIONAL LEADERS

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman, House Education and the Workforce Committee: Author of a 2013 bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives that would have kept the current testing regime in place. In a recent interview with Education Week, said he’d be open to grade-span testing, as long as assessment data is broken out by particular student groups, such as English-language learners.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., top Democrat on the House education committee: As a member of Congress in 2001, voted in favor of the NCLB law. Has expressed skepticism about whether tests alone can improve schools. A favorite line: “You can't fatten a pig by weighing it.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee: Introduced a bill in the last Congress that would have kept the law's current testing schedule in place. Republican Senate aides have said they are working on draft legislation to reauthorize the law that would likely allow states much more leeway over when and how to assess students.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee: As a member of the committee, voted in favor of legislation that would have kept the NCLB's laws testing schedule in place. She has expressed concern about redundant testing.

ADVOCACY GROUPS

National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers: Both teachers' unions backed bills in the previous session of Congress that called for testing students only in certain grade spans or cutting down on the frequency of assessments.

Civil Rights, Business Organizations, Council of Chief State School Officers: Would oppose efforts to significantly scale back NCLB's testing regime. For instance, the Chamber of Commerce would favor keeping the current assessment schedule in place to make comparisons among different types of students easier. Some special education advocacy organizations like the transparency of annual tests to show how students in special education are performing relative to their peers

The chairmen of the House and Senate education panels—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Tenn.—have both expressed openness to cutting back the number of tests required under the law.

“I want to deliberately raise the question, ‘Are there too many tests? And are they the right tests?’” said Sen. Alexander in an interview, noting that his committee will explore the issue in a hearing slated for later this month.

For his part, Mr. Kline has expressed openness to testing only in certain grade-spans, but he’s made it clear he would like to continue to see test data broken out by particular populations of students, such as students in special education.

More State Control

Meanwhile, backstage, Senate Republican aides are drafting a rewrite to the law—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—that could turn over much more control of testing to states as part of an overall effort to dramatically diminish the federal footprint in schools. That would be welcome news to teachers’ unions, traditional Democratic allies that have long sought relief from the law’s standardized-testing mandates.

Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the 3 million-member National Education Association, sees the current session of Congress as the union’s best chance yet to reduce the number of exams required under the law.

“There has been this seismic shift in public opinion,” she said, with parents and teachers increasingly viewing excessive standardized testing as a distraction from teaching and learning. “The Republicans are in control of Congress and are pushing the conversation. But we see this as a bipartisan argument,” she added.

Backing away from standardized testing in a big way is sure to enrage another diverse coalition, with a very different set of priorities: civil rights groups, business organizations, and the disabilities community, which see annual statewide assessments as vital to educational equity and opportunity, particularly for poor and minority students.

But these organizations face a radically different set of players and a much more polarized Congress than ever before. Democratic leaders in the Senate who prevented previous NCLB rewrite bills from moving forward at the White House’s behest have much less control over the legislative agenda. And the coalition has lost two key allies with the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the former chairman of the Senate education committee, and, especially, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the long-time top Democrat on the House education panel and an original author of the NCLB law.

What’s more, even though Congress is now controlled by Republicans, it’s unclear if the business community will be able to fend off legislation that takes aim at testing, an estimated $2.5 billion industry.

Two years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put its Republican allies in the House on notice that it would consider a vote in favor of final passage of Rep. Kline’s ESEA rewrite—which scaled back the federal role in K-12 accountability significantly but left the NCLB law’s testing regime intact—as a vote against business interests. The legislation passed in that chamber anyway, with only Republican support.

Still, Matt de Ferranti, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority students, thinks the coalition will be able to find new standard-bearers. “There aren’t immediately recognizable champions, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t support for assessments and recognition of the critical role they play in improving student achievement,” he said.

Andrew Rotherham, who served in the White House under President Bill Clinton and counts himself a supporter of a robust federal role in ensuring educational equity for disadvantaged students, put the situation more bleakly.

“The politics are just brutal for pro-accountability advocates,” said Mr. Rotherham, who is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington. “The goal is just to stop bad things from happening.”

Organizations that want to maintain NCLB's testing regime may have gained a powerful ally, however. The Council of Chief State School Officers' recommendations for overhauling the law, released Jan. 9, would seek to give a lot more authority to states on school improvement and accountability, but would leave the assessment schedule in place to provide needed data for parents and teachers.

Line in the Sand

One potential safety valve for accountability hawks: the presidential veto. It would likely be hard for the Obama administration to swallow a dramatic rollback of the NCLB law’s assessment regime.

High-stakes standardized testing formed the backbone of much of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s first-term agenda. The secretary required states to craft teacher evaluations based at least in part on student test scores in order to get waivers from many of the mandates of the much-maligned NCLB law, which started rolling out in early 2012. But Mr. Duncan has recently softened his rhetoric on testing, as some state policymakers push back on new exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

“While test scores are an important part of how schools measure progress, annual statewide assessments should be only one part of a variety of measures that states and communities use to determine what students are learning,” Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for Mr. Duncan, said in an email.

Still, the secretary recently told state chiefs that keeping annual, statewide assessments is one of his “lines in the sand” for any rewrite of the current law.

Instead, Mr. Duncan has tried to find a way to show that he understands educators’ concerns about overtesting without throwing NCLB’s assessment regime overboard.

He gave the thumbs-up to a bill introduced late last year by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., which would help states and school districts take a close look at their testing requirements to weed out low-quality or redundant assessments.

But getting early support from the administration may not be critical, at least initially, to Republican rewrite efforts.

The process on the bill will remain open, and key players, including the administration, could come in as late as a conference committee between the two chambers, a GOP Senate aide said.

Still, the bill will need at least some Democratic support to get through the Senate, where 60 votes is the magic number for clearing procedural hurdles, and where Republicans only control 54 seats. Getting at least a smattering of Democrats on board is something teachers’ unions could help with, at least behind the scenes.

But testing opponents—and proponents—have their work cut out for them when it comes to getting rank-and-file lawmakers up to speed on the issues.

For instance, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a former governor who often sees common ground with Republicans, could be a swing vote on an ESEA rewrite.

Conflicting Interests

For now, he’s still forming his opinion. He said in an interview that he’s worried about redundancy of testing, but that he hasn’t been thoroughly briefed yet about the specifics of grade-span assessment.

Meanwhile, the conflicting interests of civil rights groups and unions—both traditional Democratic allies—puts Democratic leaders in a tight spot.

That could be why it’s tough to discern, for now, exactly where the top two Democrats in Congress stand on the issue of reducing standardized tests. Neither Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, nor Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House panel, has yet gone on the record openly defending—or criticizing—the NCLB law’s testing schedule.

Instead, they’ve offered more measured responses that make it clear the issue is on their radar.

Rep. Scott said in an interview that the NCLB law helped expose failing schools, but added, “There’s no magic. ....You need to make sure you have enough tests to make sure you can tell which schools are performing and which schools are not.”

And an aide to Sen. Murray said that while tests can help “provide parents with valuable information about their child’s progress, and ensure that all students and schools are held to high standards, there is too often a focus on low-quality and redundant testing at the expense of learning—and that needs to change.”

Ms. Murray, who has a reputation as a dealmaker, may have an extra incentive to work with Republicans: Her home state of Washington was the first to lose its waiver from the NCLB law, after state lawmakers refused to pass legislation insisting districts use state tests in teacher evaluation, a requirement for waiver states. Sen. Murray told state leaders she tried to intervene on their behalf with the Education Department, to no avail.

Where States Stand

Meanwhile, the majority of state chiefs aren’t looking for major revisions to NCLB’s testing schedule, said Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Related Blog

John White, the Louisiana state superintendent, would prefer to keep the federal requirement for assessing students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, although he’s open to allowing flexibility for some high schoolers to take different assessments from their peers, such as college entrance and Advanced Placement exams.

“It’s important that Congress get rid of as much confusing stuff in that law as possible,” he said. “But it’s also important that Congress not confuse the system even further by undoing years of work on measuring student achievement.”

Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent in California, said the prospect of more control over testing is intriguing, particularly as his state seeks to transition to an assessment system he says will more fully capture students’ higher-level thinking skills.

“If we want this richer way of doing assessments, we need to clear some room,” he said. “If we could get away from [testing] every student, every year in these two subjects, that helps create possibilities for us.”

Vol. 34, Issue 17, Pages 1,16

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