Education Secretary Arne Duncan spelled out his priorities for a new federal education law Monday, calling on Congress to build in funding for preschool, add $1 billion annually in federal aid for schools with the neediest students, and maintain the federal mandate that says states must test students every year in math and reading.
Duncan spoke at Seaton Elementary, a high-poverty school in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. He was supposed to visit a classroom, but school was delayed by freezing rain and none of the mostly Latino and African American students were present.
He talked broadly about equal educational opportunity as a civil right — and as a moral and economic imperative for the country — and included specific ideas he wants incorporated in federal law. Any new law must include a provision that states test every student annually in math and reading in grades three to eight and once in high school, he said.
“I believe parents, teachers and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year toward college and career readiness,” Duncan said. “That means all students need to take annual statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction.”
Duncan’s speech came amid growing anti-testing sentiment among an odd alliance of parents skeptical of standardized tests, unions that say using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools has warped education and conservatives who want to shrink the federal role in education.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education panel, said he plans to work with the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, on an aggressive timetable to deliver a bill to the Senate floor next month.
A former U.S. education secretary, university president and governor, Alexander has criticized the Obama administration for dictating education policy to states and acting as “the national school board.”
He is considering ending the federal testing mandate, saying it has prompted states and local school districts to pile on more tests during the school year to measure if students are ready for the federally required exam at year’s end.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s two major teachers unions, want to replace annual tests with age-span testing, which would evaluate students once in grades three through five, once in grades six through eight and once in high school.
“That fixation on high-stakes testing has eclipsed all else, to the detriment of our schools and our kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s president. “That’s what we hear from teachers, parents, students and communities every day. And that’s why we are for grade-span testing for accountability purposes.”
In his remarks, Duncan acknowledged that “there are too many tests that take up too much time” and that Congress should direct states to limit the amount of time that students spend taking tests and require parental notification if a school exceeds that limit.
He said he was alarmed by Republican congressional leaders who want to cede power over schools back to states.
Doing so would “turn back the clock on educational progress, 15 years or more,” he said. “Back to the days when, in too many places, the buck stopped nowhere for student learning. Back to the days when expectations for how much a student should learn often depended on what side of town he or she grew up on. The days when the only factor that never seemed to matter in teacher evaluation was how much students were learning.”
He recalled how he took a year off during college to work at his mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago. One of his students was a basketball player, an honor-roll student on track to graduate.
“But as we worked together, I was heartbroken to learn that he was basically functionally illiterate,” Duncan said. “He was reading at a second- or third-grade level, and unable to put together a written paragraph. He had been led to believe that he was on track for college success. He wasn’t even close. The educational system had failed him. But the buck stopped nowhere.”
Duncan said states should be required to evaluate teachers based on “student growth,” as determined in part by test scores.
The Obama administration wants to add a program in federal law to fund preschool for low-income children. President Obama has unsuccessfully asked Congress to add pre-K to the K-12 system in his annual budget request, saying that it is the most cost-effective way to help disadvantaged children. But Republicans have blanched at spending more on education.
The administration also wants Congress to add $1 billion to the $14.4 billion it spends annually to help states educate poor students. The federal government spends about $79 billion annually on K-12 education, disbursed through funding formulas and competitive grants.
Duncan called for a bipartisan effort to rewrite the law. “In America, education has been a bipartisan cause, and it must continue to be,” he said. But at the event, he was joined by seven Democratic members of Congress and no Republicans.
The GOP-controlled Congress is making the most serious attempt in years to rewrite the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which was due for reauthorization in 2007.
No Child Left Behind dramatically expanded the federal role in education. For the first time, states were required to annually test students and make public test scores for different groups — including racial minorities, the disabled, English-language learners and the poor. States were required to make progress toward academic goals for those groups or face penalties. And they were required to take action aimed at improving their worst-performing schools.
States increasingly strained against the law’s expectations: It required every student to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, for example. In 2011, the Obama administration began issuing waivers that freed states from the most punitive aspects of the law if they adopted education policies the White House favors.
That further infuriated conservatives, who say the federal government needs to scale back its involvement.The $79 billion spent annually on K-12 programs amounts to about 12 percent of education funding nationwide.
Critics of testing argue that the exams cause stress for young children, narrow curricula and lead to cheating scandals. Some say the Obama administration has pushed even further through its Race to the Top program and its waivers, which encourage states to use the standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.
“The waiver strategy and Race to the Top exacerbated the test fixation that was put in place with No Child Left Behind, allowing sanctions and consequences to eclipse all else,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “From his words today, it seems the secretary may want to justify and enshrine that status quo, and that’s worrisome.”