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Sen. Alexander’s ESEA Draft Offers Two Options on Testing

By Alyson Klein — January 13, 2015 6 min read
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By Lauren Camera and Alyson Klein

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, kicked off the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, by saying he wants to start a dialogue about testing.

And Tuesday, he did just that, releasing a 400-page draft bill, obtained by Education Week, to renew the law that outlines two different potential paths for the committee to take on the sticky issue of whether to continue with the law’s annual, statewide assessments.

• Option A: Give states lots of leeway on how they assess students, a sort of choose-your-own testing-adventure option. States could test only in certain grade spans, use portfolios, combine the results of different formative assesments, try out competency based tests (an idea that New Hampshire wants to move forward on), or use a system of local assessments. States could also go their own way on testing and come up with something completely different. And they would not have to submit any testing ideas for approval to the U.S. Secretary of Education.

• Option B: Stick with the assessment language we pretty much already have in current law, where states test in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

It appears that, under either option, local districts could use their own assessment systems in lieu of the state’s, as long as the state (but not, it would seem, the feds) gives the okay. Which sounds somewhat similar to what state chiefs are asking for. The crucial difference between the two is that, under the chief’s plan, the Education Department would also get sign-off on local systems, which would begin as pilot projects. (Hat-tip to the eagle-eyed Anne Hyslop of Bellwether Education Partners for pointing out that particular twist.)

Otherwise, the bill seems to hew pretty closely to Alexander’s own ESEA renewal bill from 2013, which got support from every GOP lawmaker on the Senate education panel, but was never considered in committee.

For example, under the bill, teacher evaluation through test scores would be optional. The bill would also eliminate a host of programs, including after-school programs and education technology state grants (which haven’t gotten any money in years anyway).

And it would scrap the School Improvement Grant models, a key priority for the administration. There would still be money aimed at fixing-up low-performing schools, but districts would have a lot more discretion on what strategies to try.

Other vestiges of the NCLB law, including an ultimate goal for student achievement and language requiring teachers to be highly qualified (meaning hold a bachelor’s degree and state certification in the subject they are teaching) would also be stripped out, giving more control of educator quality and accountability back to states.

The measure also includes language that would allow federal Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice. That was in the 2013 version too, and it’s a huge priority for conservatives. A similar proposal was part of GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s presidential platform back in 2012.

But the provision is likely to make the draft bill a tougher sell with education organizations, including teachers’ unions, who might otherwise support the language scaling back federal testing mandates.

Overall, the idea seems to be to spark discussion, giving committee members a chance to decide whether they want to stay with NCLB’s testing regime or move on to something different. A Jan. 21 hearing on testing is likely to give lawmakers a chance to debate the issue.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Alexander emphasized the need to craft the bill in a bipartisan fashion. Beginning Wednesday, he said, committee staff from both sides of the aisle will meet every day to analyze the discussion draft section-by-section to find common ground where it exists.

“As I understand the job of the majority and the job of the chairman, it is to set the agenda and then give all members of the committee a full chance to participate in the results of that agenda,” Alexander said. “And that means in this Congress, that in our hearings and before our hearings, we’ll have a full chance to discuss and amend.”

He also noted that he needs to garner 60 votes to move any reauthorization out of the Senate and, at the end of the day, 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.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the education committee, also spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday and outlined her priorities for reauthorizing the NCLB law. Spoiler alert: They aren’t the same as Alexander’s. In fact, they sound a lot like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s.

For starters, she’s in favor of keeping NCLB’s signature schedule of statewide tests in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. She’d also like the reauthorization to address expanding early-childhood education, something that will be a tough sell for Republicans.

So, for the policy geeks, what else is in the bill?

The bill would require states to adopt standards that would match up with higher education entrance requirements, with the goal of getting kids ready for postsecondary education without the need for remediation. States would be able to adopt an alternate set of standards for students with “significant” cognitive disabilities.

The draft deals with Common Core State Standards through language saying the education secretary “shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over any standards. Similar language was in Alexander’s previous bill.

On accountability, as under Alexander’s 2013 legislation, states would be able to cook up their own accountability systems, without the education secretary’s sign-off. But they would still need to disaggregate student data, to help compare disadvantaged populations to their peers. And they would still need to report graduation rates.

And on funding, the bill would consolidate teacher quality, and school safety and other programs, and allow states and districts to transfer as much money as they want from one program to the other. But the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs and has actually never been officially enshrined in law, would be authorized as a separate program.

And, like the 2013 legislation, the bill would appear to get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep their own spending up at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. But it doesn’t appear to get rid of “supplement not supplant” which says, essentially, that federal funds can’t replace local dollars.

So what’s the early reaction?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday afternoon that while he appreciates Alexander’s willingness to work with Democrats to craft a bill, he’s concerned the discussion draft makes too much of the law optional for states.

Here’s his full statement:

There is agreement it is time to replace No Child Left Behind, and I look forward to working with Chairman Alexander, Sen. Murray and others in Congress to create a bipartisan law that accelerates the progress of our schools, protects civil rights, provides access to quality preschool and supports children and educators. Every child in America, not only some, needs to be ready for college and a career. I appreciate that Sen. Alexander plans to discuss his draft with his colleagues and to solicit public feedback, but I also am concerned that his proposal makes optional far too much of what the law needs to ensure the promise of its title. There is much we can debate in reauthorizing this law - and areas for productive compromise - but Congress must not abdicate its responsibility to help all children succeed, must protect our most vulnerable children and must build on what we've learned about supporting bold state and local innovation."

Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, whose support could help Alexander’s ideas gain traction with Democrats, said the draft sets the stage for a conversation around reauthorization.

“We can strongly say that this is a starting point from which we can all begin discussions,” she said. “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.”

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