Don't Throw Testing Out With the Bath Water


The start of the new Congress has sparked renewed focus on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known by the name given to it at its last reauthorization, No Child Left Behind. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has been vocal about the need to reauthorize the law, and with the pragmatic Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., serving as the committee’s senior Democrat, many education insiders believe this is the year the law could finally be reauthorized.

The Obama administration seems equally eager to move a bill. On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a speech in which he called for the repeal of No Child Left Behind, distancing himself from the tarnished brand, while keeping the framework of the law intact. This framework requires that states annually measure student progress against a standardized state test in reading and math from grades three through eight and once in high school, and to disaggregate the results by subgroup (race, socio-economic level, disability, and English-learner status).

Proponents believe this information is key to informing teachers, parents, and policymakers about student performance and helping to identify and rectify gaps in achievement. In addition, annual tests are necessary to measure growth in student achievement from one year to the next. Opponents contend that the annual assessments force teachers to teach to the test and that test outcomes can unfairly stigmatize schools and teachers as poor performers. While both sides have some valid concerns, the debate raises timely questions about the proper federal role in education.

Enacted in 2002, No Child Left Behind was one of President George W. Bush’s first major legislative victories. The law brought together Democrats such as Rep. George Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Republicans such as now-Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Judd Gregg, with a focus on fostering greater accountability in K-12 education programs. The law’s overarching goal was for all children to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law was premised on the notion that setting goals was necessary to catalyze change, that data would give educators the needed tools to address problems, and that the consequences attached to the law would give schools the needed push to reform themselves.

Of course, laws can only go so far. Requiring school choice for students in failing schools was a noble effort, but had little impact without enforcement. In its second term, the Bush administration relaxed some of the law’s toughest standards by permitting pilot programs to allow states to incorporate student growth measures into accountability and allowing for some relief from the cascade of sanctions required by the law. The Obama administration accelerated and expanded this flexibility, and now the majority of states have received a waiver to implement different accountability frameworks (in exchange for meeting other requirements, such as evaluating teachers based on student performance). How to measure growth in student achievement and ensure that schools improve is at the heart of this year’s reauthorization discussion and stands to shape the future direction of reform in the U.S.

The struggle over No Child Left Behind’s reauthorization has also created some strange bedfellows. The Business Roundtable has joined hands with the civil rights community to defend the annual testing provisions while the teachers’ unions have banded together with many Republicans to oppose federally mandated annual tests. As for states, the Council of Chief State School Officers – which represents the entities that are ultimately held accountable for administering the law – has taken the unexpected position of endorsing annual testing but calling for a pilot program to support different assessment models, including a combination of state and local assessments to measure student progress.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. I always felt that No Child Left Behind tried to tackle too many problems at once. It created a complex maze of rules that didn’t have anything to do with instruction, identified too many schools as needing improvement without properly empowering parents with the tools to seek a better alternative, and didn’t offer enough carrots and sticks to states to follow the letter of the law in an orderly way.

But one of the law's greatest features has been its laser-like focus on the achievement gap, a gap that can grow wider for certain subgroups and students as they progress from grade to grade, making it harder for some to graduate from high school prepared for college or work. The only way to identify this gap and try to address it is through annual testing.

Whether students are being overtested, whether the tests being used are the right diagnostic tools, and whether teachers are spending too much time preparing students for tests are all questions that states should tackle, and many have tried. But every state stands to benefit from a strong annual standardized test and, more importantly, teachers and families benefit from knowing how students are performing on these tests.

Lawmakers shouldn’t allow the problems with No Child Left Behind to undermine the value of testing. A reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act should continue to require that states find out which schools and students need extra attention and provide the resources to ensure they get it.

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