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A Message to Congress on ESEA: Superintendents State Their Case

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The following Commentary represents the views of 17 school superintendents whose districts make up the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium. The consortium’s membership is listed below.

As the day-to-day leaders of 17 school districts charged with preparing 1.55 million students for success in the 21st century, we know firsthand how federal education policy can either help or (too often) hinder the educational process, and the creation of innovations necessary to improve it. When we see some schools stop everything for days or even weeks to focus on a test that ultimately does not do much to help teachers teach or students learn, we know we have a problem.

“We urge Congress to empower high-performing districts with track records of raising achievement for all students to experiment, innovate, and improve upon our current one-size-fits-all approach to testing.”

Therefore, we welcome Congress’ aggressive new approach to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act) and urge lawmakers to take advantage of this opportunity to establish a more-balanced relationship among the federal, state, and local education systems—a relationship that places considerably more trust in the informed judgment of those working with students every day.

Thus far, the reauthorization discussion has focused mainly on the related issues of assessment and accountability. Somewhat predictably, the dialogue has become polarized in familiar ways, as different groups draw opposing lines in the sand. We think there is a “third way” that preserves what is important about annual testing while at the same time explores how we can innovate to improve the system.

As a general matter, we believe the testing mandate should remain in effect for this reauthorization of the law, to ensure full transparency about performance and identify districts, schools, and students that need additional support. Although there are still many challenges ahead, we are encouraged by the improvements in testing that are coming in new state assessments. We also hope the reauthorized ESEA will remove or reduce some of the misuses of test results, particularly with respect to accountability and teacher evaluation.

“Congress can address the testing mania that many are justly complaining about, simply by right-sizing the federal role in these areas.”

We will never figure out a better way, however, without adopting a systematic approach to fostering innovation. So we urge Congress to empower high-performing districts with track records of raising achievement for all students to experiment, innovate, and improve upon our one-size-fits-all approach to testing. Locally driven pilots can pursue higher-quality, balanced assessment systems that primarily support improved teaching and learning, while continuing to provide sufficient transparency and accountability. Once we see these next-generation assessment systems in action, states can decide whether, when, and how to scale the pilots to other districts.

To those calling for reducing or eliminating the annual-testing mandate, we say this: While we agree that there is too much testing in our schools, we believe that the most serious problem with the current system is not the frequency of the mandated tests. Rather, the problem lies in (1) the reliance on low-quality tests that simply are not worth the trade-offs they require in time, energy, and resources, and (2) the overuse and misuse of test results under the current federal approaches to accountability and teacher evaluation. Congress can address the testing mania that many are justly complaining about, simply by right-sizing the federal role in these areas. Furthermore, district leaders like us must eliminate any nonfederal tests that are redundant or low-quality, as well as work harder to avoid falling into the test-prep trap.

More Opinion

To those defending the testing status quo, we say: We agree wholeheartedly that educators, parents, and students need regular, ongoing feedback on student progress, but we will never discover ways to improve our assessment system if we do not acknowledge that it already represents a set of compromises and trade-offs. For example, we currently embrace federally mandated “grade span” testing in high school, with just one annual “checkup” in reading and math over four years. Moreover, the ESEA does not require a single statewide assessment in social studies (or other “special” subjects) during a student’s K-12 education. There are (mostly) good reasons for these and other testing compromises, but we must be open to examining over time whether this set of choices continues to make sense for our nation, states, districts, teachers, and, most of all, students and their families.

We must not delay the hard work of figuring out better systems that help accomplish our primary purpose—improving our students’ lives. As school district leaders, we urge Congress to complete the ESEA reauthorization and let us get to work.

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