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. This post is about a bill passed last week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that is a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The committee sent the bill to the full Senate on a 15-7 vote. A version of this post was published on the National Journal Education blog.

By Monty Neill

One thing we’ve learned from watching the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Committee wrestle with its bill that revamps the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current form as No Child Left Behind, is that it seems much easier to change the rhetoric than the substantive details.

Congress, for example, has clearly heard the message from administrators, teachers, students and parents who have grappled for years with the impact of of the standardized-test centric No Child Left Behind: that it has failed to drive real school improvement where it’s needed. Senators also recognized that the law mislabeled many good schools as failing. The result? It seems certain that Congress will eliminate the name “No Child Left Behind.”

Unfortunately, despite intra- and inter-party disagreements, inside-the-Beltway politicians appear to remain wedded to NCLB’s failed approach to improving schools — massive over-testing and overreliance on test scores to judge schools.

A decade of data shows that this strategy clearly hasn’t worked. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is sometimes called the nation’s report card, educational gains slowed or stalled after NCLB took effect in 2002. Achievement gaps based on poverty, race, disability or language have stagnated or grown.

At the same time, nations cited as models for achieving sustained growth in achievement, like Finland, take an approach that contrasts sharply with that of the old — and the proposed new — NCLB. Those countries reject test-based accountability for students, schools and teachers.

The Forum on Educational Accountability, a group of non-profit organizations committed to closing the achievement gap, echoes the voices of many educators and parents with its calls for reducing the amount of testing.

In a joint statement on NCLB, more than 150 organizational signers recommend that a revised NCLB “decrease the testing burden on states, schools and districts by allowing states to assess students annually in selected grades in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.”

Of course, it is good that the Senate’s the HELP Committee bill ended the absurdly unrealistic “adequate yearly progress” provision, which required states to have nearly all students scoring at the proficient level on reading and math standardized tests by 2014.

But now we are left with a dispute between proponents of two bad approaches: those who want to mostly preserve the failed NCLB, and those who want to mostly scrap a meaningful federal role in improving education. The only way out is a different paradigm, such as that outlined by the forum.

If the current effort to pass a law collapses, then Congress needs to get serious about a real overhaul of NCLB in 2013, not the tinkering compromise we see developing. If this bill does pass, assessment reform activists will have to shift the battle to the state level to move away from the test-based pseudo reform.


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