Every Student Succeeds Act

Battle Lines Drawn on Annual Testing in ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein & Lauren Camera — January 16, 2015 8 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defends the yearly testing schedule in the No Child Left Behind Act during a Jan. 12 speech at the Seaton Elementary School in Washington. Debate is gearing up on Capitol HIll over long-overdue renewal of the NCLB law, which is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
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Thirteen years after mandating high-stakes testing, Congress is kicking off its most serious attempt yet to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with partisan wrangling over whether to ditch the law’s signature schedule of annual assessments.

But a closer look shows that, behind the scenes, the politics aren’t so cut-and-dried.

At center stage, it’s largely been Democrats, especially U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, defending the yearly testing schedule in the current law, the No Child Left Behind Act. And Republicans, primarily Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, are putting other options on the table, including giving all authority over testing to the states.

Beyond the principal players, however, there’s likely to be bipartisan support for backing away from annual assessments in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and reducing the federal footprint in education—both longtime priorities of education organizations, including teachers’ unions.

There are “plenty of votes” on both sides of the aisle to dismantle the NCLB law’s testing regime, said Vic Klatt, a former longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee, who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington.

“It’s not a partisan thing. It gets portrayed as the big, bad old Republicans doing this, but it’s bipartisan,” he said.

What’s more, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they recognize the need to work together. And there are several proposals on the table that could form the contours of a compromise down the line.

One thing is for certain: All this Inside-the-Beltway back-and-forth has serious implications for the future of teaching, learning, and school improvement, which for the past decade has been guided by the annual tests required in the law.

Starting Point

While testing is the central aspect of the immediate debate, the federal education law covers a dizzying array of K-12 policies and programs, including the $14.5 billion Title I program for school districts with large numbers of low-income students, an accountability system for student achievement, the turnaround program for chronically failing schools, and more.

Sen. Alexander put the testing question front-and-center earlier this week, introducing a 387-page draft bill to reauthorize the law that includes dueling proposals on testing—intended to spark discussion on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Dueling Visions

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.—chairman of the Senate education committee—have laid out competing priorities as they frame the debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act.

Obama Administration

• Include a stronger role for early-childhood education programs in a reauthorized ESEA.
• Maintain the current NCLB law’s signature testing schedule, including requiring states to administer reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
• Separately, through the regular federal budget process, boost education spending by $2.7 billion, including $1 billion for Title I grants to districts.

Sen. Alexander

• Consider giving states far more control over testing, including allowing them to test in only certain grade spans, try out competency-based testing, continue with state-wide assessments, or let states come up with their own testing plan.
• Give states more flexibility when it comes to using money for teacher quality and after-school programs. The bill would allow states to transfer funding between the two.
• Make teacher evaluation through test scores optional
• Require states to use academic standards aligned to state higher education system entrance requirements.
• Allow states to devise their own accountability systems without needing approval from the U.S. Secretary of Education. Such systems would have to include graduation rates and student achievement rates.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Congress

One option would give states considerable leeway on how they assess students.

States could choose to test only in certain grade spans, use portfolios, combine the results of different formative assessments, or try out competency-based tests. And no one would have to submit testing ideas for approval to the U.S. Secretary of Education, something that’s currently required through a peer-review process.

The question at hand remains “to what extent should the federal government be telling states what to do about their schools?” Sen. Alexander told reporters Jan. 13. “I would like to move back toward the traditional responsibility of state and local governments” in education.

Just a day before, Mr. Duncan—who has made high-stakes tests a cornerstone of his agenda on school turnarounds and teacher quality—vigorously defended the NCLB law’s testing schedule as central to moving the needle on student achievement, particularly for poor and minority students.

“Do families have the right to expect that leaders will put in place meaningful supports and a real plan for improvement?” Mr. Duncan said in a Jan. 12 speech at Seaton Elementary School in Washington. “Or is that optional? ... This country can’t afford to replace ‘the fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.’”

That “soft bigotry” phrase was taken directly from former President George W. Bush in what may have been meant as a reminder to Republicans that it was a GOP president who ushered in the law’s robust accountability system.

And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee almost immediately backed Mr. Duncan up in a speech on the Senate floor on Jan. 13.

“If we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities,” she said.

On the Table

There may be some middle ground, however, in the other option put forward in Sen. Alexander’s draft.

The proposal keeps the current testing schedule, but, in an important twist, local districts could use their own assessment systems in lieu of the state’s, as long as the state signs off. That language tracks somewhat with a proposal floated recently by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which would keep the NCLB law’s annual, statewide tests—but permit local districts to participate in pilot projects that would allow them to experiment with new forms of assessment.

“We think what we’ve done is outline what the compromise looks like,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the organization.

There’s also some potential for a testing consensus in a proposal put forth by the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union, and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank closely associated with the Obama administration.

Both organizations say they support annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But they say the scores from the exams should only factor into state accountability systems once in elementary school, middle school, and high school.

That marks a significant policy shift for both groups. The AFT has been a leader in the charge against yearly testing, passing a resolution just six months ago urging policymakers to move away from the annual tests.

Plenty to Discuss

But the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group that represents 200 civil rights organizations, made it clear that its members are very unhappy with the draft.

“Now is not the time to make a U-turn in holding states and school districts accountable for providing a quality education to all children,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the organization. “Unfortunately, Chairman Alexander’s opening proposal would send us back to a dark time in our nation when schools across the country, operating with no federal oversight, could freely ignore the needs of disadvantaged students.”

So far, the testing conversation has sucked up a lot of oxygen in the reauthorization debate. But, if Sen. Alexander’s opening bid is any indication, it appears the administration is in for a tough fight if it wants to enshrine in law any of the policies it’s pushed for in big, legacy-defining initiatives such as Race to the Top and waivers from provisions of the NCLB law.

Under the committee chairman’s draft, teacher evaluation through test scores would be optional, not required, undoing years of negotiations between the Education Department and waiver states on teacher-performance reviews.

The draft would also scrap the School Improvement Grant program, which the Obama administration reinvented and to which it tied serious strings, along with significant funding increases. There would still be money aimed at fixing low-performing schools. But districts and states would have almost complete discretion on which strategies to try.

Other vestiges of the original law, including an ultimate goal and 2014 deadline date for student achievement, would also be stripped out, giving more control of education quality and accountability back to states. Plus, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s role would be significantly diminished. The secretary would not be allowed to specify or prescribe anything related to standards, assessments, school accountability, or teacher evaluations.

The proposal would allow federal Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice. That provision is likely to make the draft bill a tougher sell with education organizations, including teachers’ unions, which might otherwise support the language scaling back federal testing mandates.

Still, Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, a 3 million-member union, didn’t immediately throw cold water on the draft, calling it instead a “starting point for discussions.”

She added, “We need to ensure there are the appropriate safeguards by the federal government to ensure all students are receiving a 21st century education regardless of their ZIP code. ... But we are pleased to see measures that increase the flexibility of educators and their districts to meet the needs of their individual students, especially those with the greatest needs.”

Common Ground?

For their part, lawmakers say they recognize the need to look for consensus.

In his floor speech, Sen. Alexander noted that he needs to garner 60 votes to move any reauthorization out of the Senate and, at the end of the day, he 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.”

The Senate education committee is expected to consider its legislation in the coming months, and aides are hoping it will proceed to the Senate floor soon after.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education, has said he’d like to move his bill, which has yet to be released, on a similar schedule, passing it out of the House by the end of March.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Battle Lines Drawn on Annual Testing in ESEA Renewal


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