Commentary

An ESSA Co-Author Weighs In on Accountability

The Ed. Department must step up to enforce ESSA

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Congress in December 2015 passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that supports K-12 education in schools across the country and, in doing so, replaced the outdated No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. As the chairman of the U.S. House Education & Workforce Committee at the time, I co-authored the new law alongside the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; its ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; the ranking member of the House committee, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.; and many of our colleagues.

During the eight long years our team spent working to pass this bill, no topic was more hotly debated than that of annual testing. We listened carefully as parents, teachers, students, and school administrators explained their concerns about overtesting and using state math and reading assessments as essentially the only factors in determining if schools were succeeding or failing. On the other hand, we heard from researchers and the civil rights and business communities about their concerns that eliminating annual testing requirements would reduce the focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged and minority children across America and disguise important information about their achievement.

—Getty

In the end, we arrived at a fair and sensible compromise in the law: Keep the requirement that "the same academic assessments [be] used to measure the achievement of all public elementary school and secondary school students in the state" beginning in 3rd grade. However, we made it clear that states—not the U.S. Department of Education—would decide how to use the testing results to measure and improve school performance. Tests would still be an important part of assessing school quality but not the only significant factor. And the tests are important so that students and parents can compare the progress of their school with that of other schools across the state. However, Arizona and New Hampshire recently passed laws that violate ESSA by permitting individual school districts to choose which assessments to administer, according to an analysis by Dennis M. Cariello, a former top lawyer for the Education Department under President George W. Bush. Such violations undermine ESSA in its entirety.

"The U.S. Department of Education must enforce the fundamental requirement that the same annual tests be given to all students."

Since the passage of ESSA a year and a half ago, states and districts have been working hard to implement the new law. Those of us who had a hand in crafting the law are all paying very close attention to ensure that states and the Education Department do this in a way that is consistent with the law and the principles to which we all agreed—state and local flexibility but with important federal guardrails. In Arizona and New Hampshire, state policymakers and Education Department officials must work together to fix the discrepancy so that every public school student is measured by the same tests—whatever tests those state administrators decide are best.

With respect to testing, we expect the new law will result in a more balanced use of state tests that keeps the focus on student achievement and limits classroom time spent on testing while scaling back some of the high-stakes uses that have been so controversial in recent years.

Ultimately, states are required to follow this law and, simply put, the U.S. Department of Education must enforce the fundamental requirement that the same annual tests be given to all students. After all, 359 members of the U.S. House, 85 U.S. senators, and President Barack Obama all supported ESSA, ushering in a new era of innovation combined with state-based accountability.

I backed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when President Donald Trump originally nominated her, and I still believe that she will succeed in her pledge to defend ESSA. I am confident she will be a champion for states as they implement the law—including the necessity that all students take the same annual tests.

Vol. 37, Issue 02, Page 19

Published in Print: August 28, 2017, as ESSA Co-Author: Enforce the Law
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