Arne Duncan to Push Annual Tests, More Resources, Early Ed. in NCLB Rewrite

By Alyson Klein — January 12, 2015 4 min read
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Cross-posted from Politics K-12.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will outline Monday the Obama administration’s broad principles for renewing the law currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act, including adding more resources, ensuring educator excellence, and keeping the law’s historic focus on educational equity, a senior administration official said.

The secretary will remind folks that the underlying law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was, at its inception in 1965, and remains, at its heart, a civil rights law. Every reauthorization has sought to build on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s initial vision for a federal role in ensuring disadvantaged children get access to the resources they need to be successful, Duncan will say. (Why the history lesson? The speech is pegged to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s “educational message” to Congress, which laid out his vision for what became the ESEA.)

“The secretary’s speech will make clear what we believe a new elementary and secondary education law should stand for and what we value as a country,” said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for Duncan. “He will outline the need to widen and ensure opportunity for all students—the original purpose of this landmark law. He will call for quality preschool for every child, improved resources for schools and teachers, and better support for teachers and principals. He will also call on states and districts to limit unnecessary testing so that teachers can focus needed time on classroom learning.”

And Duncan won’t back away from policies the Obama administration has embraced from the get-go. Those include investing in teacher quality—and teacher evaluations; a state-federal partnership on accountability akin to the NCLB waivers the administration granted; and, yes, maintaining NCLB’s annual summative tests. As he’s said before, Duncan sees annual statewide assessments as an important part of the picture when it comes to ensuring that all students, especially disadvantaged kids, are making academic progress.

The speech, which the secretary will deliver Jan. 12 at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, will also include a major focus on incorporating early-childhood education into the ESEA. The Obama administration has made preschool a key part of its education agenda in the president’s second term, beginning with a State of the Union proposal for a major expansion in early ed. But Duncan hasn’t yet linked that push to the ESEA in a strong way—and this speech will be his big chance.

What’s more, the senior administration official said, the secretary is open to changes in how standardized tests are used. The administration also wants to allow states to incorporate measures other than test scores into their accountability systems—flexibility that’s largely already offered to states through the NCLB waivers (even though many haven’t taken advantage of it).

And the secretary wants to ensure that states and districts aren’t going overboard with a lot of unnecessary or redundant tests, something he’s signaled before by applauding efforts by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools to help their members take a hard look at their assessment systems and weed out unnecessary or low-quality tests.

Primarily, the speech is a sign that the administration, which initially pushed hard for reauthorization and then became somewhat aloof to congressional efforts to renew the law, is taking this latest attempt at reauthorization seriously.

It’s an open question, of course, whether a call for increased resources (which usually means money) and an expanded federal role in anything (even something as popular and bipartisan as early-childhood education) is a good opening bid with a Republican Congress that’s seeking to rein in spending, scale back the federal role in K-12 education, and return control to states.

And, the senior official stressed that the administration is ready to collaborate. “We’re going to be open to a lot of new ideas that come forth from Congress on a bipartisan basis,” the official said.

So ... the question you’ve all been waiting for: Would the White House veto a bill that didn’t meet its principles, including annual statewide assessments?

It’s way too early to say, the administration official said, noting that Congress hasn’t actually put pen to paper yet and produced a bill.

That will soon change, however. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate education committee, is expected to release draft proposals for revising the law as early as the week of Jan. 12. The proposals are likely to borrow from an ESEA rewrite bill Alexander introduced in the previous Congress, and could include a fair amount of change when it comes to how often students are tested.

And if Duncan is going to make a big push for annual assessment, he’s likely to have help from a key player in the reauthorization debate: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee. A Murray aide told The Washington Post that she is expected to push back strongly” on any attempt to eliminate annual testing.

The Senate panel is likely to hold a hearing on testing (slated for Jan. 20, the same day as the State of the Union) and then will likely hold two more hearings, possibly on state innovation and teachers. The House, meanwhile, plans to pass its ESEA proposal by the end of March.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.