School & District Management

Senate Panel Weighs Standards, ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein — April 29, 2010 5 min read
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The nation needs more rigorous and uniform academic standards, but it’s best if states take charge of the effort, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said Wednesday at a Senate hearing on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that one of the many problems with the current version of the ESEA, the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, is that states don’t necessarily have to set their standards so that students are ready for college or a career. As a result, nearly 60 percent of students entering postsecondary schools need remedial coursework before they can start earning college credit.

“The good news is that once again states are taking the lead” in addressing that issue, Sen. Harkin said, referring to an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association to establish such standards. So far, 48 states and the District of Columbia have joined that effort, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee, complimented the initiative but cautioned that the U.S. government shouldn’t get overly involved.

“The federal government should stay out of the way of these efforts,” he said. “As we work on the reauthorization of ESEA, we should find ways to assist states, not require or coerce them, with this difficult, but important, work.”

Sen. Enzi also said he wants Congress to move deliberately on reauthorization, and not go quickly just to comply with an “artificial timeline.”

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to pass a bill this year, and Sen. Harkin has said he’d like to get legislation through the Senate this summer. The ESEA had been due for renewal in 2007.

Difficult Questions Ahead

Although there seemed to be broad agreement that the common-core initiative is headed in the right direction, the committee did not delve into some of the tricky policy questions that have emerged in the standards debate as it relates to reauthorization of the ESEA.

For instance, not a single lawmaker mentioned the Obama administration’s proposal to tie together standards and Title I funding for disadvantaged students. Under the proposal, which was included in the administration’s blueprint for renewing the ESEA, states would either have to join a consortium aimed at adopting common college- and career-readiness standards or have their higher education institutions certify that their standards met that bar. Otherwise, they would not be allowed to tap Title I funds.

In an interview after the hearing, Sen. Harkin said he was still examining the administration’s proposal.

Also during the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, recalled how an attempt to create national standards in the 1990s fizzled, in part because of conflict over social studies, particularly history.

“I compliment the work that the states have done so far,” Sen. Alexander told the witnesses, who included Stephen L. Paine, the state superintendent in West Virginia.

But, the senator said, referring to the two subjects addressed in the common-core draft, “English and math are the easy parts of a very hard thing to do. I want to see how you do this with United States history when the time comes.”

Sen. Alexander also said he’d be open to several different sets of common standards. For instance, he suggested, Massachusetts could join with other states in one consortium, while Iowa and other states could join another. He said that approach might be easier—and lead to a more challenging set of standards—than if nearly all states try to get on board with the same set of standards and assessments.

Encouraging Rigor

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he wants the new system to recognize both state and local flexibility in setting standards. But he also wanted to know how the federal government could make sure that states challenge their students.

“I understand the importance of state flexibility and local flexibility in implementing these standards,” Sen. Franken told Mr. Phillips. But he added, “You did give the examples of the loophole in NCLB” that led to “very low standards in some states.”

Gary Phillips, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, based in Washington, suggested that the federal government encourage states to benchmark their cutoff scores against those of other nations. He said that states sometimes adopt high standards and “tell the press” that they are challenging students, but then set passing scores on their tests at a very low level.

Mr. Phillips also encouraged the committee to steer states toward computer-based tests, which he said are better at measuring student growth and can help differentiate assessments, including ensuring that the highest-performing students get a chance to show achievement gains. He said those students’ learning often isn’t reflected on traditional pen-and-paper tests since they are already at the ceiling.

The committee also heard from two witnesses with expertise in gauging the progress of students who are difficult to assess: English-language learners and students in special education.

Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center for Educational Outcomes, in Minneapolis, said that computerized testing holds promise when it comes to assessing students with disabilities, and that those students need to be assessed on grade level, not be held to a different standard.

Charlene Rivera, the executive director of the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, located in Washington, cautioned the committee that ELLs are not a “homogenous” group. She said that such students vary greatly in their command of English and in the level of education attained in their home countries. She said when it comes to online and computerized tests, ELLs need to know how to use the technology and may need to be given “linguistic accommodations.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Weighs Standards, ESEA Renewal

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