It’s go time for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which means that proposals and position papers are flying in every direction. It’s sort of refreshing. It’s been too long since Congress appeared poised to do some actual legislating, and we ought to celebrate that prospect with a vigorous debate about the bill.
While each of the various proposals now floating around covers a lot of issues, the really big one is testing. How often should students be tested? How should the results be used? How much flexibility should school districts have in which tests to administer and when to administer them? These are important questions that touch on one of the proudest legacies of No Child Left Behind (illuminating gaps in student achievement), as well as one of its most frustrating side effects (more tests and an unhealthy fixation on testing in many schools).
Unfortunately, many of the proposed answers to those questions have, so far, fallen short. Take those that came from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum this week. Both originated with thoughtful, engaged groups—but we agree with the folks at The Education Trust and Bellwether Education that neither makes a lot of sense.
First, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the new chair of the Senate HELP committee, finally unveiled his draft ESEA bill. A former U.S. Secretary of Education, Sen. Alexander deserves to be taken very seriously on this topic, and his staff are as knowledgeable as any in Washington. On the core issue of testing, though, his bill feels indecisive. It maps out two possibilities. The first would allow states to do nearly anything they want when it comes to testing (for example, it would be fine if a state wanted to scrap reading tests altogether, or test only in middle school rather than elementary school). The second would require annual testing, but would open the door to each district in a state using different assessments, making meaningful comparability impossible. Both ideas defeat the point of testing in the first place. If the goal is to create objective, comparable information for parents and policymakers, why undermine those goals with a testing strategy that appears tailor-made for obscuring trends?
Next, the Center for American Progress and the American Federation of Teachers—two liberal organizations that don’t always agree—issued a joint release that attempts to find common ground. That alone is worth applauding. But the compromise that emerged isn’t one worth making. In preserving annual testing for students, it marks a significant and laudable shift for the AFT from the increasingly anti-assessment positions it has adopted in recent years.
But the price is high, in the form of a hobbled accountability system. States could, if they chose, hold schools accountable for results in just one grade each at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Student learning in other grades might be tracked but not factored in. That’s a bad idea that would allow schools, districts and states to pick and choose what information they use for accountability purposes and all too easily sweep problems under the rug.
What would be a better approach? The federal government should concede that its role is limited but commit to playing that role effectively. As much as some on the right would prefer to let states decide nearly everything, certain things shouldn’t be optional. If they want federal money, states should assess their students—using tests of their own choosing, against standards of their own choosing—on an annual basis and report the results, by sub-group, annually. And they should not have the option of sitting on their hands when low income and minority students are not receiving a quality education, as shown by those assessments. That’s been the core federal mission for decades, and it should remain the mission.
States have an extremely poor track record of addressing educational inequality in the absence of a federal role. Let’s not forget that the state of California was recently sued—successfully—for passing and maintaining a raft of laws over the course of decades that were shown to deny low-income students the education they are guaranteed under the state constitution. There’s no need to apologize for acknowledging that states often need a federal push on schools.
The best idea, in short, is a bill that retains a true commitment to assessment and accountability, and uses the lessons of NCLB to improve the partnership between states and the federal government without abdicating critical functions altogether.