The Senate education committee convened last week to take up the divisive education policy debate over whether to scrap federally mandated annual tests in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law.
While the diverse panel of witnesses overwhelmingly recommended that the current law’s annual-testing regimen be maintained, the principal architects of any future bill, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., didn’t finalize how they intend to handle the issue legislatively.
“I think whether we keep the federal tests depends upon what kind of accountability system we have,” Sen. Alexander said in an interview after the hearing. “The accountability system may be more of a problem than the tests, and the state and local tests may be more of a problem than the federal tests. So they all have to be considered at once and I don’t have a solution yet.”
A Simmering Debate
The Jan. 21 hearing was the first in a series of hearings that will take on the biggest policy issues involved in overhauling NCLB, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The conversation about whether students are over-tested and whether those tests are redundant or of value has been simmering for months.
The current law mandates 17 annual tests: One reading and one math test each year in grades 3 through 8, and one for each subject in high school. Also, science is assessed once in elementary, middle, and high school.
However, Mr. Alexander’s discussion draft, which he unveiled Jan. 13, includes two testing options—one that would keep in place the existing annual system, and another that would allow states to use any type of testing schedule they please, including annual tests, portfolio exams, grade-span tests, a competency-based system, and more.
Over the last few weeks, lawmakers have been scrambling to cement their position on the subject. So far whether or not to keep annual tests isn’t a party-line issue, especially among Democrats.
During the hearing, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the education committee, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were adamant that annual tests be required for accountability purposes if the federal government is giving states billions of dollars in education aid.
“Assessments help parents and communities hold schools accountable,” Ms. Murray said during the hearing. “If a school is failing students year after year, parents and communities deserve to have that information and be assured the school will get the resources it needs to improve.”
While Ms. Murray agreed that an update to the law should encourage states and districts to reduce redundant and low-quality tests, she said it would be irresponsible to spend billions in federal taxpayer dollars without knowing if the law is effective. Ms. Warren also drove home that theme in her remarks.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., took a more tempered approach, touting a bill she introduced Jan. 20 with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. The bill would allow states to use federal funds to audit their assessment systems to identify and eliminate redundant tests. The proposal has bipartisan support in the House, but it has yet to garner the support of a Republican in the Senate.
Still others, like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., condemned the current testing system and, specifically, the caliber of tests being used.
“To me it’s pretty clear that [annual federal tests] are designed to test the school and not the students,” he said, adding that in many cases, testing inhibits the ability of teachers to teach.
Need for Accountability
While little agreement existed among lawmakers regarding how to address testing in the forthcoming reauthorization, the opposite was true for many of the witnesses who testified before the education committee.
Martin R. West, a former adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and education policy counselor to Sen. Alexander, recommended maintaining the law’s current testing requirement, while giving states autonomy over all decisions about the design of their accountability systems. That autonomy, he said, should include how schools and teachers are identified as under-performing and what should be done to intervene in them.
The annual tests, Mr. West said, “ushered in a new era in education research and has made it possible to develop new indicators of schools’ performance based on their contribution to student learning.”
Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of the 90,000-student Denver school district, agreed.
He said that annual measures of progress for students in literacy and math are important in providing transparency that is “vital” for school districts to effectively measure growth. But he agreed that there should be fewer and shorter tests.
“I do not see why we cannot have good measures of student progress that are limited to no more than three to four hours combined time for literacy and math per year,” he said. Both witnesses also agreed that the federally mandated tests aren’t the culprit in over-testing.
Indeed, data show that the bulk of testing time is not devoted to those tests, but to state and local exams. A new report from Ohio’s Department of Education, for example, found that federal tests accounted for less than a third of overall testing requirements.
Mr. West noted, however, that the state and local tests were likely adopted to prepare students for the federally mandated exams, which determine whether schools will be sanctioned. After the hearing, Mr. Alexander agreed that the notion that the federal exams are leading to a barrage of additional testing is one lawmakers must tease out.
Two New York City teachers also testified at the hearing and rallied against the annual testing schedule, arguing that they inhibit teachers’ ability to help students and are especially troublesome when paired with aggressive teacher-evaluation systems.
Mr. Alexander said that he and Ms. Murray had written to states to better gauge how many tests they administer annually, and whether they are mandated by the federal government or their state and local governments.
Highlighting just how unsure Mr. Alexander is on the testing issue, he said in closing remarks that he would consider whether the government should provide more funding for the development of better assessments—though he quickly added that the government’s “sticky fingers” are always a concern.
“I know it comes as a shock,” Mr. Alexander said in the post-hearing interview, “but I think it’s OK to have an open mind on some questions, and mine is still open.”
The chairman plans to complete markup of the bill in committee by the end of February and expects it to move to the floor of the Senate for an open debate that will last at least two weeks.
He again underscored his commitment to working in a bipartisan process, acknowledging that he must garner 60 votes in the Senate and the president’s signature for any bill to become a law. He also hinted at a possible theme for upcoming hearings: “Washington’s involvement, in effect mandating [the] common core and teacher evaluation, is creating a backlash, making it harder for states to set higher standards and evaluate teaching.”
The next hearing, slated for Jan. 27, will take up the issue of teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as No Firm Direction on Testing Set at Senate Panel’s ESEA Hearing