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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 10/19/2011

Will new NCLB law be less test-obsessed?

This was written by Monty Neill,  executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based non-profit dedicated to ending the misuse of tests.

By Monty Neill

It looks like pressure from multiple directions has achieved one victory in the larger battle to prevent a new version of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) from being as test-obsessed as the current law. This victory increases the odd of a new law being a realistic and useful tool for school improvement.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, introduced a draft revision of NCLB, the “Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011.” One of the bill’s worst ideas was to mandate teacher and principal evaluations. These would require student test scores in every subject and grade. Leading education groups called on the HELP Committee to remove that and some additional damaging ideas.

Earlier, the Forum on Educational Accountability, made up of dozens of education, civil rights, disability, religious and other organizations, called for making evaluations optional. (The forum also opposed mandating the use of test scores in educator evaluation).

Republican leaders concurred, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) whose own bill would not mandate the evaluations, and HELP’s ranking member, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), who otherwise had approved of the bill Harkin introduced. Harkin agreed, announcing on Monday the removal of this provision, and gaining the endorsement of Enzi. As a result, students across the nation will not necessarily be facing tens of millions of new tests in currently untested subjects.

Even with this, the revised bill is not the needed major overhaul. FairTest recently recommended a wide-ranging set of changes in assessment and accountability, for example. Congress should keep listening to people from all walks of life who want their children go obtain a strong education, not test preparation.

There remain some major components of the Harkin-Enzi bill that, if unchanged, will have dismal consequences for American education.

First, the fundamental test-and-punish paradigm remains unchanged from the old NCLB to the proposed new NCLB. (These comments refer to the initial version introduced by Harkin; the amended version is here.)

The bill does put the final nail in the coffin of “adequate yearly progress,” the illusory goal that all students would score high on standardized tests by 2014. However, it will require the same level of federally mandated testing, and vastly more will follow in its wake.

Statewide tests will continue in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math, and science once each in grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12. The bill would pave the way for multi-state consortium tests. Based on the consortium’s applications, the “new” exams will remain mostly multiple-choice and short answer, meaning they will trivialize teaching and learning just as current NCLB tests do.

The bill makes very clear that “achievement” means student test scores and “assessments” means statewide standardized tests. This will make it much harder to create significantly different, educationally sound assessment systems. (There may be some money for real innovation, but it is unlikely to be spent that way.) The mandated exams and the incessant references to using them as the sole or primary determinant for many decisions will crowd out any other assessments — except a vast proliferation of mini-tests aimed at boosting scores on the big tests.

The bill often states principles that seem reasonable — until you realize that nearly all devolve to testing. Some new goals, however, are as absurd as NCLB’s mandate that all children score proficient by 2014.

The equally impossible goal in Harkin-Enzi is that all children will soon be college ready or on a “growth track” to become so — even as education funding is slashed, as Richard Rothstein pointed out. Studies of what it takes to succeed in college or good-paying jobs, such as a survey from Achieve, make clear that what students need cannot be adequately assessed with standardized tests.

Score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), NCLB’s ‘ultimate arbiter,’ have gone nearly flat for nearly all groups of students. The United States needs to abandon its obsession with testing, which no other nation in the ‘advanced’ countries shares. If we do not, the next ESEA also will be an educational failure for our nation’s children, since it will inevitably induce an intense focus on boosting test scores in most schools.

For schools scoring in the bottom five percent, the bill starts with promising ideas, then quickly loses its way. Each district must develop a plan for each identified school, based on a needs analysis, with a plan to monitor improvement efforts, provide assistance, and other things. Many of these requirements would make good sense if enacted in an educationally sound context. There is a list, including professional development and parent engagement, of action steps.

The Forum on Educational Accountability calls for a similar approach: needs analysis, planning, ensuring needed resources are provided, ongoing monitoring and adjusting. If the bill’s ideas were in service to more than boosting test scores, and if it had stopped there, it would have been consistent with FEA’s “turnaround” proposal. But the Senate bill goes awry by mandating selection of one “improvement strategy” from a list of six that are highly similar to the “models” called for by Race to the Top. None provides adequate evidence that they will sustainably improve struggling schools.

The last few days have shown some senators’ willingness to respond to reasoned voices calling for change, but much more needs to be done. The nation needs a reauthorized ESEA which supports high-quality, equitable local and state education systems across the nation. And even gains, such as blocking the Obama administration-backed goal of judging teachers by test scores, will have to be continually defended and improved.

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