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Bernie Sanders’ Record on Testing and No Child Left Behind: A Brief History

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 26, 2020 6 min read
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When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has discussed K-12 education during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, one of his favorite topics is his 2001 vote against the No Child Left Behind Act, which among other things instituted new testing requirements in grades 3-8 and high school as well as federally mandated consequences for schools doing poorly on the tests.

In a USA Today op-ed in January, Sanders said he voted against No Child Left Behind “because it was as clear to me then, as it is now, that so-called school choice and high-stakes standardized testing would not improve our schools or enhance our children’s ability to learn.” He wants an end to “high-stakes testing.” And in a December 2019 presidential candidates’ forum on education, Sanders said student performance should be tracked using methods other than standardized exams.

The No Child Left Behind Act has a history beyond just one vote, as does the law that replaced it. Here are some key moments from Sanders’ record with NCLB and federal accountability related to testing in general.

• May 22, 2001: The House is close to voting on its reauthorization of federal K-12 law, a bill called the No Child Left Behind Act. It includes a new requirement that states administer tests students annually in reading and math, with federally mandated consequences attached to those test results. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., introduces an amendment to eliminate the testing requirement. Sanders, then serving in the House, votes in favor of the amendment, but it falls short. This follows a failed effort earlier in the month in the GOP-controlled House education committee to strip the mandate out of the bill by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.

• May 23, 2001: The House votes to pass its version of the No Child Left Behind Act. Sanders votes in favor of the legislation, which includes the annual testing requirement for states. The testing requirement is “at the heart” of the legislation and, as Diane Ravitch writes, reflects the desires of the Bush administration. Most of the votes against it are Republicans.

• Summer 2001: Concerns about the House (and Senate) versions of NCLB grow. In a 2003 history of the legislation published in the journal Education Next, Andrew Rudalevige wrote that the legislation “came under fire from all sides” including teachers’ unions opposed to mandatory testing, as well as state policymakers and others. Sandy Kress, a top education adviser to President George W. Bush, also recalled that things were “becoming a little more partisan,” and the president’s political standing was weakening in the summer.

• Fall 2001: The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks create a surge in bipartisan sentiment that key players have said likely made it easier for NCLB to pass.

• Dec. 13, 2001: Sanders votes against the final version of NCLB, called a conference report, along with 40 other House lawmakers.

Despite the new spirit of collaboration following the 9/11 attacks, Charles Barone, who that year worked for the House education committee’s top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, told us that to the best of his recollection, “there was more political pressure on the conference report because, by then, opponents were able to build up a head of steam.” Key elements regarding required tests don’t change from the House bill, Barone notes.

• July 15, 2015: With pressure mounting to replace the unloved NCLB, the Senate passes its reauthorization of federal K-12 law called the Every Child Achieves Act; Sanders votes in favor of it, along with 80 other senators. It includes the same basic federal mandates for state testing in reading and math as NCLB, but rolls back other significant federal requirements attached to the tests like adequate yearly progress. Prior to passage, Sanders votes in favor of an amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would have added requirements for interventions in struggling schools based on test scores. Sanders joins nearly every Democrat in backing Murphy’s amendment.

A week later, a group of educators criticize Sanders for supporting Murphy’s amendment. Sanders responds by saying he backed it to express concerns about some aspects of the legislation, but stressed again that he supported the bill because it would help end “high stakes testing and draconian interventions” in schools.

Dec. 9, 2015: Sanders (who was in the middle of a presidential campaign) does not vote on the final legislation, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, that President Barack Obama signs the next day. The 12 lawmakers who vote against it are all Republicans. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who like Sanders runs for president in 2020 pledging to end “high-stakes testing,” votes in favor of the bill.

In sum, Sanders has a record on Capitol Hill of opposing standardized tests and requirements for how they’re used, although it’s not as black and white as some might believe or suggest.

Why does all this matter? The Every Student Succeeds Act is virtually certain to stick around for a while, even though technically it’s been up for reauthorization since last December. But if Sanders is elected president—and particularly if he were to be re-elected in 2024—there might start to be at least rumblings that ESSA needs a facelift, if not a total overhaul. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the law’s main architects, has made it clear that when ESSA was written, a major sticking point was whether to continue the mandate for those reading and math tests.

If Congress takes another crack at revamping federal education law in, say, 2027, would there be a lot of momentum for ditching the testing mandate altogether? And if there is, how would a President Sanders respond? Sanders’ K-12 education platform decries the federal government’s “conditioning funding on standardized test scores,” but doesn’t answer those questions.

Democrats are split on the issue of testing. Some support what Sanders wrote in his USA Today op-ed about testing’s perverse impact on schools and educators. Others, including several powerbrokers on Capitol Hill, say such tests and attaching consequences to them is crucial for measuring schools’ performance and directing more resources and support to struggling, often-neglected students.

We reached out to Sanders’ campaign about his vote for the House version of NCLB in May 2001, and whether he’d back an elimination of the federally required tests as president. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

One issue to watch if Sanders wins: Sanders has publicly discussed how he helped write the part of ESSA that created a local assessment pilot. This allows states to work on alternative assessments to the traditional state exams at the district level before, ideally, scaling them up. Sanders has talked up the pilot because in his view, as he told the AFT, it allows states to administer innovative assessments that “provide actionable information during the school year that can inform instructional practice.”

However, while this approach—known as performance assessment—is sometimes cast as very different if not the opposite from giving end-of-year standardized tests, performance assessments are in fact often standardized and can produce valid, reliable results. You can read a little more about performance assessment here.

So far, however, only a handful of states are participating in that ESSA pilot. (See what Louisiana is doing under the pilot here.) Could—or would—a Sanders administration direct the U.S. Department of Education to make it easier somehow for more states to participate in the pilot, or put a big emphasis on it in public statements and speeches?

Photo: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. (Patrick Semansky for the Associated Press)