Education

Let States Be Creative With Testing ... Or Not, Says Sen. Alexander in ESEA Proposal

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 13, 2015 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

By Lauren Camera and Alyson Klein

UPDATED

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, kicked off the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, by saying he wants to start a dialogue about testing.

And Tuesday, he did just that, releasing a 400-page draft bill, obtained by Education Week, to renew the law that outlines two different potential paths for the committee to take on the sticky issue of whether to continue with the law’s annual, statewide assessments.

Option A: Give states lots of leeway on how they assess students, a sort of choose-your-own testing-adventure option. States could test only in certain grade spans, use portfolios, try out competency based tests (an idea that New Hampshire wants to move forward on), or use a system of local assesments. States could also go their own way on testing.

or

Option B: Stick with the assessment language we pretty much already have in current law, where states test in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Otherwise, the bill hews pretty close to Alexander’s own ESEA renewal bill from 2013, including making teacher evaluation through test scores optional. The bill would also eliminate a host of programs (including the 21st Century Community Schools program, which offers grants for afterschool programs) and education technology state grants. And it would scrap the School Improvement Grant program, a key priority for the administration.

Other vestiges of the NCLB law, including an ultimate goal for student achievement and language requiring teachers to be highly qualified (meaning hold a bachelors’ degree and state certification in the subject they are teaching) would also be stripped out, giving more control of educator quality back to states.

The measure also includes language that would allow federal Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice. That’s a huge priority for conservatives and a similar proposal was part of GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s presidential platform back in 2012. But the provision is likely to make the draft bill a tougher sell with education organizations, including teachers’ unions who are likely to support the idea of scaling back federal testing mandates.

As for standards, the draft language would require states to adopt standards that are aligned with entrance requirements, without need for remediation, for a college or university. States would be able to adopt an alternate set of standards for students with “significant” cognitive disabilities.

The bill indirectly deals with the Common Core State Standards with language that says the secretary “shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over any of the standards.

As for accountability, it seems as though the draft would allow states to devise their own system, without needing the approval of the secretary, though it’s not entirely clear.

Overall, the idea seems to be to spark discussion, giving committee members a chance to decide whether they want to stay with NCLB’s testing regime or move on to something different. A Jan. 20 hearing on testing is likely to give lawmakers a chance to debate the issue.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Alexander emphasized the need to craft the bill in a bipartisan fashion. Beginning Wednesday, he said, committee staff from both sides of the aisle will meet every day to analyze the discussion draft section-by-section to find common ground where it exists.

“As I understand the job of the majority and the job of the chairman, it is to set the agenda and then give all members of the committee a full chance to participate in the results of that agenda,” Alexander said. “And that means in this Congress, that in our hearings and before our hearings, we’ll have a full chance to discuss and amend.”

He also noted that he needs to garner 60 votes to move any reauthorization out of the Senate and, at the end of the day, also needs the president’s signature for it to become law.

“That takes working with all senators here, including those on the other side,” he said. “I also know that if we want it to be a law, it takes a presidential signature, and that president today is President Obama.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the education committee, also spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday and outlined her priorities for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. Spoiler alert: They aren’t the same as Alexander’s.

For starters, she’s in favor of keeping NCLB’s signature schedule of statewide tests in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. She’d also like the reauthorization to address expanding early childhood education, something that will be a tough sell for Republicans.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.

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