Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings. In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.
However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.
Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing. The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps. They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.
Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing. Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.” Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”
On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing. Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.
Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing: “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”
The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing. NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”
In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures. While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”
The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing. Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation. Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich. This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps. A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession. Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.
These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly. The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.
Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated. The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.