Steven Singer, a teacher and parent, says he feels like he has entered “a parallel universe.” A veteran Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Pennsylvania with a masters degree in education, Singer watched the House of Representatives and Senate debate and pass differing legislation aimed at rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act, and he can’t wrap his arms around what transpired.

For one thing, he writes on his  Gadflyonthewallblog, the debate about how to fix the NCLB “has been less on making things better and more on deciding who gets to make decisions about schools.” For another, he can’t quite get over the fact that it is Democrats who have been pushing to retain some of the controversial testing mandates in No Child Left Behind, which was President George W. Bush’s key education initiative.  He wrote about a pro-testing amendment:

Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.
But Republicans defeated them.
I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Eight years late, Congress is now trying to rewrite NCLB, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that supporters said would lead to an end to the achievement gap. It didn’t. NCLB was supposed to be rewritten in 2007, but Congress couldn’t find its way to seriously address the issue until now. In 2012, the Obama administration began to issue waivers to states from the most onerous parts of NCLB — such as the impossible requirement that virtually all students score proficient in math and reading by 2014 — but only to states that agreed to implement reforms approved by the Education Department. Among those reforms is a requirement that teachers be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores, a method that assessment experts have warned against using for such high-stakes purposes.

If a new law is signed by President Obama, those controversial waivers will be moot. With the bills passed by the Senate and House now headed to a conference committee, a new law seems within sight, but there is no guarantee. The two bills have substantial differences, and Obama is expected to veto a bill that doesn’t include testing accountability measures he favors.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a statement on Thursday about the Senate’s passage of its legislation, applauding “the progress” made but also issuing a veiled warning that it “falls short” of accountability measures for the lowest-performing schools.

The biggest issue by far in the NCLB rewrite debate has been about returning power over education decisions from the federal government to the states, which can only be seen as a sharp rebuke to Duncan, who has micromanaged education issues for years to such an extent that even many Democrats came to realize he had overreached. The administration has for six years pushed high-stakes standardized testing as a central education priority and has continued to defend it in the face of a burgeoning national anti-testing movement that includes teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, students and other advocates.

Despite that backlash, some major civil rights groups still support annual standardized testing of students for “accountability” purposes. They say that the scores are important to identify “failing” schools so that interventions can help close the achievement gap, and they have opposed giving parents the right to opt their children out of the tests. Other civil rights groups are on the other side of both of these issues. They argue that there is no evidence that high-stakes standardized testing has led to more equity for students, or that these tests are valid and reliable measure of what students know and how much teachers have contributed to student progress. They also say that it is wrong to assume that standardized testing is the only way to ensure that minority and disabled students get attention.

This is the backdrop for the push by Congress to fix No Child Left Behind. But instead of a healthy debate strongly focused on what research tells us about how to make schools better, or about how to fix the preposterous way public schools are funded (which leave the poorest schools with the fewest resources), or about how to ensure that all students have the social and emotional supports they need to have a chance of doing well in school, or about why policy-makers keep ignoring warnings by assessment experts not to evaluate teachers by test scores, we got a discussion that is centered around states’ rights vs. federal control. In fact, it was this issue that largely drove the push to rewrite NCLB.

Both Senate and House bills, which will now go to a conference committee, strip power from the federal government over what to do with schools deemed to be failing. Does that mean the states will make any better decisions than Duncan’s Education Department has since 2009? No, but the Obama administration’s overemphasis on standardized testing and the use of student test scores to hold teachers “accountable” has been so damaging that it was inevitable that a Republican-led Congress would return power to the states.

The Senate bill  and House bill retain annual testing for Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, which is supported by Duncan and Obama. The Senate legislation requires that standardized test scores be part of any accountability system but leaves to the states to decide how those scores will result in rewards or sanctions. The Obama administration wants the federal government to retain some say in which schools need intervention.

 The Senate rejected a Republican-sponsored amendment to include private school vouchers in the bill. The House bill has what is called “Title 1 portability,” which would allow federal funds for students who live in poverty to “follow the child” to wherever he enrolls, something Obama administration says will lead to the neediest school districts losing millions of dollars. The Senate bill does not have this, and it will definitely be a big issue to work out in conference, and Obama opposes Title 1 portability. The Senate bill also strengthens prohibitions already on the U.S. Education Department from dictating to states specific curriculum, standards,  tests, and teacher evaluation methods.

Singer is disturbed that it was the Democrats, historic defenders of public education, who pushed the “Murphy amendment” to the Senate bill, which specified which schools would have to be identified for intervention, leaving the intervention up to the state. The amendment was defeated, but it had support from some prominent Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  Singer wrote:

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!
When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.
She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”
That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog:

Why do Democrats believe that the U.S. Department of Education has the capacity or knowledge to identify “failing” schools or to intervene to improve them? Nothing in the past decade suggests that this is a realistic expectation.
Democrats have now almost completely bought into the assumption that more testing=more equity, when it is a well-established fact that standardized tests always have a disparate impact that disadvantages students and adults of color. For many decades, the same civil rights groups that now defend standardized tests for students have litigated to block the use of standardized tests as decisive measures, whether in school or in employment.
But for reasons that are hard to discern, certain leading civil rights groups now insist that without testing every child every year, children of color will be overlooked and neglected. Of course, if standardized tests could meet the needs of children of color and children in poverty, these children would be in far better shape today than they are because they have been taking standardized tests every year since 2003, when NCLB was implemented. That is an entire generation of children.
What are the results? Where are the benefits of the billions spent to test every child every year? How many children have lost access to courses in the arts, history, science, civics, geography, physical education, and foreign languages because they took time away from test preparation?

Then there’s the issue of whether parents should have the right to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized tests. Both the House and Senate bills allow for parental opt out — but not quite in the same way.

The House version requires states to allow opting out and says the federal government will not withhold aid under the 95 percent rule (which requires that no less than 95 percentof students be tested) because families chose not to test. The Senate version allows (but does not require) state governments to adopt opt out laws and says the feds will not penalize them financially if such policies result in less than 95 percent participation.

The current NCLB is so flawed that it is imperative for Congress to replace it. Many of America’s public schools need real help that provides not only academic support for students but socio-emotional supports as well. Yes, there were amendments that addressed some important issues, such as one amendment that provided more money for community schools that provide wrap-around services for students. Still, the debate about a new education law did not, unfortunately, put these issues in the forefront, where they belong. That focus is what was missing.

(Correction: Earlier version had an extra word that changed the meaning of a sentence about the Senate and House bills, both of which mandate standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Clarifying opt-out positions in bills.)