Amid a national debate about overtesting, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a onetime elementary school music teacher, wants to erase the federal requirement that states test every child every year in math and reading.
Tester said Tuesday he will try to amend a bipartisan bill that was crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and was passed unanimously last week by the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions.
That bill, which is designed to update the country’s main federal education law, maintains the requirement that has existed since 2002 that states give standardized math and reading tests annually to every student in grades three through eight and once in high school.
Critics say the testing mandate has drained the joy from classrooms, leading to narrowed curricula as teachers focus on math and reading to the exclusion of social studies, the arts and other subjects. In the worst cases, the emphasis on testing has led to cheating scandals, opponents say.
A growing number of parents around the country are having their children opt out of federally required standardized tests. In New York, an education advocacy group said more than 175,000 students opted out of English language arts exams given last week.
“Students shouldn’t be spending most of their time in schools filling out bubbles,” Tester said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “High-stakes testing is an expensive way to judge school districts and a bad way to prepare children for their future.”
Tester’s bill would require states to test students in math and reading three times — once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. It would be up to a state or school district if they wanted to test more frequently, Tester said. “If you’ve got a local school district or a state that thinks they need more than that, that’s their call,” he said.
Annual testing required by the federal government is a priority of civil rights groups, which lobbied Alexander and Murray to maintain the testing mandate. The groups argue that federally required testing is a tool to force fairness in public schools by aiming a spotlight at the stark differences in scores between poor, minority students and their more affluent counterparts.
Civil rights advocates say they don’t trust states to pay attention to disadvantaged children if they aren’t required by federal law to test and make public the scores of blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities and English-language learners.
Tester said he understood that argument but believes that local residents, not the federal government, are in the best position to hold their school districts accountable.
“We have a similar situation in Montana. We have a lot of Native American kids at risk, they need attention,” he said. “. . . If you have a state that’s going to ignore certain segments of the population, I can assure you the federal government coming in and doing mandates is not going to make it be accountable. We need to help the states with their evaluation, and hopefully the states will do their job.”
The Alexander-Murray bill would update No Child Left Behind, which was enacted in 2002 and was due for reauthorization in 2007. The law ushered in an era of accountability by requiring states for the first time to test all students in math and reading in grades three through eight, as well as once in high school. Students are also required to take three science tests during their school career.
Under the law, schools must make public their test scores by groups according to race, income and whether the students are disabled or English learners. Most states began annual testing in 2005, and the public data laid bare achievement gaps between poor children and their more-affluent peers, usually divided along racial lines. No Child Left Behind penalizes schools that fail to raise test scores for all groups.
“I’ve got many educators in my family,” Tester said. “We talk education around the Easter dinner table.”
Tester said he plans to offer his bill as an amendment during the Senate floor debate on the Alexander-Murray bill, which has yet to be scheduled.
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