NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

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.

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Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Yesterday this blog reviewed the way federal education policy has become stuck and discussed an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Today, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations and review growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability.  First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit.  Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools.  In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes.  Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.”  These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.

Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability.  Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement.  A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”  You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.

Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students.  This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”

The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however.  An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing.  Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing.  They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).

Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014.  The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.”  He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill.  In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”

Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however.  “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments.  Progress has been made, but much more must be done.  To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology.  And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”