Groups Seek to Keep a Spotlight on Issues of Testing, Standards

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2008 4 min read
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells an Aspen Institute meeting that she is worried about the number of U.S. children not finishing high school.

The No Child Left Behind Act is not likely to be reauthorized this year and isn’t getting much play on the presidential campaign trail.

But this week, some of the most ardent supporters of testing and standards discussed how the law has bolstered education and what next steps policymakers should consider in renewing it in the next Congress.

The Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, sponsored the Sept. 15 event at a Washington hotel, which it called “An Urgent Call.” In 2006, the institute established a bipartisan panel, led by former governors Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican from Wisconsin, and Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat from Georgia, to propose significant changes to the NCLB law.

See Also

Read the Aspen Institute’s blog on “An Urgent Call” and watch full session video from the summit.

Last year, the panel released a report listing more than 70 recommendations for overhauling the law, including such ideas as detailing strategies to determine teachers’ effectiveness using student test-score data and calling on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to develop national standards and tests.

The No Child Left Behind law, which requires states to test students in mathematics and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, was scheduled to be reauthorized in 2007, but renewal has stalled in Congress. Lawmakers aren’t likely to continue working on it until next year.

The daylong meeting featured Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, and others who are likely to champion retaining a strong federal accountability system after President Bush leaves office.

“There’s a coalition of [advocates] on the right, left, and center” who support principles such as accountability and rigorous standards, said Gary M. Huggins, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind. But they are “not as well organized as the opposition.”

But Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, called the discussion “one-sided,” since most of the participants support federally mandated testing. The NEA has been an outspoken critic of the federal school law.

Mr. Packer said that there isn’t the political will in Congress to get behind the Aspen Commission’s ideas. While many items on the commission’s wish list were incorporated into a bill introduced by three sponsors. That bill has not been considered by the Senate education committee.

National Guidance Needed

The day started out with a discussion of the gap between students’ results on some state tests and their scores on the NAEP, the federally sponsored test also known as the nation’s report card.

Mr. Klein urged the federal government to set national standards on subject matter content, perhaps through a presidential commission.

“In the absence of accountability, it’s game over,” he said. “And a critical component of accountability is our willingness to test our kids. … If you think this is a Sputnik moment, then you should be calling, I believe, for national standards and national assessments.”

Mr. Klein also proposed that the federal government direct more resources toward offering districts incentives to pay teachers for boosting student achievement, and expanding school choice options for low-income parents.

Roy Romer, a former Democratic governor of Colorado who now is chairman of ED in ‘08, an effort to raise the profile of education issues in the presidential election, said he worried that states may not be ready to embrace national standards. He suggested that a group of about 15 governors should develop voluntary standards instead.

“I would like to get there, national standards,” Mr. Romer said. “I’ve made a political judgment that that’s not doable now in these United States.”

Secretary Spellings cautioned that the back-and-forth on the panel might miss the point.

“I just want us to be cautious about the wonkery of this. Rome is burning and we need to put out the fire,” the secretary said, referring to the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and those from more privileged backgrounds. She said the accountability advocates for testing and standards need to make it clear, particularly to suburban voters, that the nation’s ability to compete in the global economy is in jeopardy.

“Without public will, public support, and public understanding, politicians and policymakers don’t feel any need to scratch the itch. It’s as simple as that,” Ms. Spellings said at the meeting.”

Later, Sir Michael Barber, a onetime chief adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, also advocated national education standards for the United States.

“The question of national standards is inescapable,” he said. “The U.S. needs fewer, clearer, and higher national standards.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also addressed the group. Her speech focused on the importance of education in keeping the United States secure and globally competitive.

“I am concerned that less than 1 percent of our youth are studying critical languages,” Ms. Rice said. “But it is even more troubling that many children, particularly from underprivileged backgrounds, are simply not finishing high school. And we know that that means that fewer Americans are going to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Groups Seek to Keep a Spotlight on Issues of Testing, Standards


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