As a new Congress gets to work to rewrite the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is drawing what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls a “line in the sand”: The federal government must continue to require states to give annual, standardized tests in reading and math.
In a speech scheduled for Monday at an elementary school in the District, Duncan is expected to insist that any new law retain the trademark of No Child Left Behind, requiring that every public school student be tested annually in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and also be tested in science at three points during those years.
“He will outline the need to widen and ensure opportunity for all students — the original purpose of this landmark law,” said Dorie Nolt, Duncan’s spokeswoman. “He will call for quality preschool for every child, improved resources for schools and teachers, and better support for teachers and principals. He will also call on states and districts to limit unnecessary testing so that teachers can focus needed time on classroom learning.”
The administration’s position comes amid growing anti-testing sentiment fueled by an alliance of parents skeptical of standardized tests, teachers unions that say using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools has warped education, and conservatives who argue that the federal government should play a much smaller role in local education.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary, university president and state governor who became chairman of the Senate education panel Monday, said he is weighing whether to ditch the federal requirement to test.
“Every parent, every teacher in 100,000 public schools is asking the question, ‘Are there too many tests?’ ”Alexander said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t know the answer. I’m asking the question. And the United States Senate ought to be asking that question as we think about No Child Left Behind.”
Alexander said the federal requirement appears to have created a cascading effect in states and local school districts, most of which now regularly test students during the course of the school year to make sure they are on track to succeed on the federally required exam at year’s end. And this year, as most states prepare for new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, the testing debate has gained new urgency.
“It’s a good, healthy discussion that the country is having,” said Alexander, who has scheduled a Jan. 20 Senate hearing on testing and set an aggressive timetable to move a bill to the full Senate for a vote by late February.
The current law is about 600 pages long and spells out how the federal government disburses roughly $25 billion annually to states to help educate poor and disabled students.
The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, wants to kill the annual testing requirement and replace it with age-span testing, which calls for students to be tested once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-8 and once in high school.
“We need to cut back on testing and build a smarter accountability system,” said Becky Pringle, NEA vice president.
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the senior Democrat on the committee and a former preschool teacher, is expected to “push back strongly” against any attempt to eliminate annual testing, an aide to the senator said. But while tests can provide helpful information to teachers and parents, “there is too often a focus on low-quality and redundant testing at the expense of learning, and that needs to change,” Murray said through a spokeswoman.
Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform and who helped write No Child Left Behind as a congressional aide, said annual testing is vital to making sure schools are adequately educating children, especially those who have been historically disadvantaged.
“I don’t know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation,” Barone said. “If you want to see a kid’s vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test.”
When President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, it dramatically expanded the federal role in education. For the first time, states were required to test students, and schools had to release test scores for different groups — including racial minorities, English-language learners, the disabled 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.
The law was due for reauthorization in 2007, but efforts repeatedly stalled as Congress struggled with the question of the proper role of the federal government in public education.
States increasingly strained against what most observers consider the law’s unrealistic 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 favored by the White House.
That has further infuriated conservatives, who say the federal government needs to scale back its involvement and return power to states and local districts.
“The Department of Education has become, over the last seven years, a national school board,” Alexander said. “No one ever imagined the federal government would be telling a state what accountability system to use, how to evaluate teachers, how to intervene in failing schools to the degree that it has. . . . The question about testing gets mixed up in the question of how much federal control is too much federal control.”
Critics of testing argue that the exams cause stress for young children, narrow classroom curricula, and have led to cheating scandals. Some say the Obama administration has pushed even further through its Race to the Top program, which encourages states to use the standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.
While Obama said in the fall that there is too much testing in public schools, his administration is steadfast in its support for annual standardized tests.
The administration is backed by major business groups such as the Business Roundtable as well as civil rights organizations, which argue that eliminating the testing mandate would allow states to revert to the days when the achievement gap between poor students and their affluent peers was masked.
“Removing the requirement for annual testing would be a devastating step backward, for it is very hard to make sure our education system is serving every child well when we don’t have reliable, comparable achievement data on every child every year,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents top education officials in every state, also wants to keep the annual testing requirement, although it has acknowledged that states and districts have piled on too many additional tests.
“There is clearly too much testing going on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the council, which says states and districts ought to reduce the number of tests they give. “But we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A requirement for just one test a year doesn’t seem like overkill.”