Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, right, and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), arrive on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for the committee’s hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Senate began its most serious attempt in years to rewrite the country’s main education law with a hearing Wednesday focusing on an issue that has caused an uproar nationwide: Whether states should be required to test students every year.

An overflow crowd listened as witnesses described standardized testing as helpful and as harmful to learning, and lawmakers grappled with how much control the federal government should exercise over the nation’s 100,000 public schools.

“There are two worlds. Contractors, consultants, academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal and state level,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “And the other world is of principals and teachers who are actually providing education to students. And what I’m hearing from the second world is that the footprint of the first world has become way too big in their lives.”

The current education law, known as No Child Left Behind, expanded the federal role in public education in 2002. The law emphasized accountability, requiring schools for the first time to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 though 8 and once in high school. It also required states to make scores public for groups including racial minorities and the poor.

The data laid bare gaps in academic performance between racial groups and put pressure on states to address them. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, credits annual testing with a slight decline in the achievement gap.

Civil rights advocates say the transparency that came with testing was the most valuable contribution of the law.

Without annual testing, some states will “squirm out of their responsibility” to educate historically disadvantaged children, said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. In recent days, 20 civil rights groups have pressed to keep annual testing, and Henderson was accompanied at the hearing by a handful of parents who support tests. The Obama administration also wants to keep annual testing.

Under the law, schools that failed to improve their test scores faced sanctions. The Obama administration increased that pressure, encouraging states to use test scores to judge not only schools but also teacher performance.

States and school districts then began adding interim tests during the school year, to measure whether schools were on track to pass the end-of-year test.

“Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C., have to do with all this? “ asked Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The tests have resulted in unintended consequences that have narrowed curricula and turned the learning experience into drudgery, critics say.

“I’m embarrassed to say I am a teacher who every May would get up and apologize to my students,” testified Stephen Lazar, who teaches U.S. history and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. “I would tell them, ‘I have done my best job to be an excellent teacher for you up ’til now, but for the last month of school, I am going to turn into a bad teacher to properly prepare you for state Regents exams.’ I told my students there would be no more research, no more discussion, no more dealing with complexity, no more developing as writers with voice and style. Instead, they would repeatedly write stock, formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts.

Jia Lee, an elementary special education teacher at the Earth School in New York City, told the Senate panel that she will boycott standardized tests this spring.

“I will refuse to administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of assessments are put in their proper place,” said Lee, an organizer of a group called Teachers of Conscience.

There has been growing resistance to standardized testing around the country. Two House members Wednesday filed legislation that would switch from annual testing to grade-span testing, which calls for students to be tested less frequently. The bill has support from the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a gathering of U.S. mayors Wednesday that he believes the main federal education law needs to be updated but put the chances of getting a rewrite at about 50-50.

But several witnesses told the Senate that annual exams are the best way to gauge how schools are performing.

“To measure how students do from one year to the next, you need annual measurement,” said Tom Boasberg, superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. “It’s equally important for high-achieving kids as low-achieving kids.”

Congress can design a law that uses annual tests to hold states accountable in a way that does not pervert the learning process, he said.

“As a parent of three kids and superintendent of 90,000, do I care about seeing the progress my children make in literacy and math? Yes, of course I do,” he said. “But we need fewer and shorter tests.”