Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sitting next to the committee’s ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., listen to testimony during a hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate education committee, and ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state recently reached an agreement on a rewrite of No Child Left Behind that, if it were to become law, would significantly reduce the federal role in local public education.

The “Every Child Achieves” proposed legislation would, for example, shift decisions about how to evaluate teachers, what to do about low-performing schools and other matters from the federal government to states and local school districts. But there is something it would not do: eliminate federally mandated standardized testing for grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Here is a piece that looks at the details of the proposed legislation, written by Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond. Neill is executive director of  FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is dedicated to eliminating the abuse and misuse of standardized tests. Guisbond is an assessment reform analyst at FairTest.

By Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond

Despite proposing important steps to reduce the harmful uses of standardized exam results driven by No Child Left Behind, this month’s Senate committee draft legislation – “Every Child Achieves” – fails to address the law’s deeply destructive annual testing mandate. To fix this, Congress must respond to the growing grassroots movement calling for less testing and more learning.

NCLB, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), significantly harmed public education, especially for vulnerable students. This is primarily because of two flawed components: mandated annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8, plus once in high school; and the punitive sanctions attached to those tests. The consequences include narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test, increased cheating, a wider school-to-prison pipeline, and emotional damage to children.

Unfortunately, the bill proposed by Sens. Alexander and Murray keeps the mandate to test every student every year in elementary and middle school. Advocates for assessment reform will push for amendments to eliminate the every-grade testing requirement, specifically cutting reading and math tests to once each in elementary, middle and high school (“grade span” testing).

The Senate committee bill would allow use of performance assessments as one part of an accountability system. Performance assessments include portfolios, projects and extended tasks, such as research papers and lab experiments. Well-designed and implemented performance assessments promote in-depth, engaging instruction with powerful outcomes for students. However, their positive impact is limited in the context of a test-driven system. Without addressing the problem of testing in every grade every year, therefore, this rewrite would perpetuate an educationally damaging system.

The bill does provide for an “innovation” program, through which up to five states can apply in the new law’s first three years. It would allow states to build systems focused on portfolios and projects that could replace statewide exams for accountability purposes. The systems could include locally-designed assessments that vary across schools and districts but still produce comparable results across the state.

While creating the new assessments, participating districts would not have to use the state test. The best current example is the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a network of 48 public high schools. They require students to successfully complete extended tasks in four subjects to graduate, while the state exempts students from all but one of five graduation exams. Consortium schools have produced far better outcomes for their students than traditional city high schools, including higher high school graduation and college persistence rates.

The proposed implementation requirements, however, are too stringent. For example, they say the new assessments must be “equivalent” to current tests. That implies a requirement to measure only the same things the tests do. That could undermine the advantages of performance assessments, such as tapping a broader range of skills or assessing knowledge in more depth. Advocates therefore will push to ensure this proposal is workable for states by authorizing greater flexibility. While a reduction in mandated tests is essential, the innovation program could facilitate transition to superior assessment systems.

There are other problems with the bill, such as no requirement for states to even report on funding inequities across schools and districts. It also includes a voluntary “incentive” program for educators in states that apply which requires the use of “merit pay” based on student test scores. A great deal of evidence shows such programs have not improved educational outcomes or school quality.

The good news in “Every Child Achieves” is that it removes the federal sanctions required by NCLB and the highly restrict “waivers” Arne Duncan allowed under the law, all of which have failed to promote educational improvement or equity. Gone are:

  • adequate yearly progress (AYP), which requires schools to make impossible gains every year to avoid sanctions;
  • all the NCLB and waiver sanctions, from transporting students to other schools to firing staff, closing or privatizing schools; and
  • the waiver requirement to implement a teacher and principal evaluation system that included “in significant part” student test score gains (“growth”).

Instead, states will develop plans for how to identify schools that need “support” and “intervene” as needed to assist them. States can use multiple indicators that include student test scores and high school graduation rates, plus other factors from a list the bill provides or that the state wants to consider, and weight them all as they choose. For identified schools, states will have to monitor progress and intervene as needed. In short, accountability is now a state matter with very broad federal requirements.

This does not mean states will automatically overhaul their testing policies. They may, for example, retain sanctions for exam results or judge educators by student test scores. Real assessment reform will require grassroots political action to educate, persuade and pressure state officials to end punitive approaches and seek to improve educational opportunities for all children.