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 . A different version was published on the National Journal Education blog.

By Monty Neill

If you're a parent or teacher fed up with the way high-stakes testing drives more and more of what happens in school, a new bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander and some Republican colleagues offers little hope of relief. Their package of five bills to change the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) would help by getting rid of the disastrous Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions which mandate all schools reach 100% proficiency by 2014. However, the bills keep too much testing in place and does nothing to address the way the current law increases educational inequity by turning schools for poor children into test prep centers and little else.

Under their proposals, most schools would not be subject to the punishment part of NCLB’s “test-and-punish” structure. Unfortunately, the bills retain a federal mandate for too much testing. While no other advanced nation uses standardized tests in more than a few grades, the senators continue to believe that testing each child annually with a standardized exam in reading and math will lead to good education.

Results on other U.S. standardized tests contradict that. Under NCLB, NAEP scores have flattened, even declined in some cases.  SAT college entry test scores have dropped over the past five years.

Lawmakers need to recognize that mandated over-testing hasn’t gotten us anywhere and that they should reduce federally mandated exams to once each in elementary, secondary and high school, as was required in the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (NLCB is the current version of the long-standing ESEA.)

Other major flaws in the Republican’s primary bill, the Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments (ESEA) Act of 2011, include:

·        It retains test scores as the primary accountability data.

·        It does not take meaningful steps toward ensuring adequate, equitable opportunity to learn for all.

·        It fails to provide needed resources to the many schools, beyond the lowest-scoring five percent, that do need significant assistance.

·        And, it does not establish sufficiently flexible, comprehensive “turnaround” plans for the too-few schools for which it requires interventions.

On the better news side, the senators would not require states to adopt “educator evaluation” systems as a condition of receiving federal funds, though the Obama-Duncan Administration has been pushing for this (more on this below).

 The guiding purpose of ESEA is to help schools serving low-income youth improve. After the failure of NCLB, Alexander wants to hand that task back to the states. But there is a third alternative between no federal role in improvement and the benighted NCLB. The  Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, which I chair) has proposed a fundamentally different approach, for example.

Alexander, et al., would require states to intervene in the lowest-scoring five percent of their schools. But far more than five percent of schools need help – and the “help” should be supportive, not punitive. The problem is that such help would cost real money, and few in Congress are now willing to make the investment.

Instead of investing in enough schools, the bill adopts the administration’s “turnaround” models. These models  require some combination of firing staff, privatizing control over schools, or closing them. The Alexander bills add in a “something else” that states could do with federal approval, plus a vaguely worded waiver for rural districts in response to the many complaints that the Obama administration’s models don’t match rural realities. 

The four models are unlikely to improve learning outcomes, in part because they will perpetuate testing’s control over teaching. The FEA, by contrast, has proposed an evidence-based set of practices around which schools and districts would be required to develop improvement plans.

The bill also keeps reading and math tests as the primary measure of school success. The public reporting of test scores will maintain the pressure to teach to the test, thereby continuing to  narrow curriculum and instruction. That won’t help students become “college and career ready,” the new goal of ESEA.

Among the bills introduced by Alexander, et al., was the “Teacher and Principal Improvement Act.” The background is that the administration has used its “Race to the Top” competition for federal education funds to bribe states into implementing educator evaluation systems that must include student test scores “in significant part.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to make that a condition of the waivers from AYP he is expected to announce on Friday. Alexander correctly avoids making that lose-lose tradeoff. However, in his bill, if a state does choose to use some of its federal funds on an evaluation system, it would have to include student test scores “in significant part.”

The best evaluation systems, such as the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, do no such thing. Congress should not require states to use student standardized test scores in reviewing educators in exchange for limited federal dollars.


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