Politico.com’s reporters are closely watching as interest groups inside the Beltway maneuver around the important issue of testing and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. NCLB is the name given to the basic federal education law, which was originally titled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The crucial question now, as Senator Lamar Alexander begins the revision of NCLB is what will happen to the mandate of annual testing from grades 3-8. Accountability hawks love it, especially when it is attached to high-stakes testing. Most teachers and parents hate it, because it narrows the curriculum, encourages constant test prep, promotes teaching to the test, and incentivizes cheating and gaming the system. And so the various interest groups are staking out their positions, and decisions will be made by Congress about whether to allow districts and states to decide about how to test students or whether to stick with the status quo. The latest news is that the AFT issued a Solomonic joint statement with the Center for American Progress (a neoliberal think tank that is close to the Obama administration) supporting annual tests with no stakes and grade-span tests for accountability. Previously, the AFT and NEA were in solidarity against annual testing. Nothing would prevent states from continuing to use the annual tests for accountability. No high-performing nation gives annual tests or uses test scores to evaluate teachers.
Here is Politico’s latest update:
THE CHANGING TIDE ON TESTING: Statements of principles on No Child Left Behind reauthorization have been flying all week, and amid the platitudes, there have been some surprises – position shifts that strongly hint at an emerging consensus on the issues of testing and accountability. Just six months after demanding an end to mandatory annual testing [http://bit.ly/1KKTaFS], the American Federation of Teachers did a 180 and called [http://politico.pro/1BscqnE ] for keeping that requirement in the law. The union’s only condition: Congress has to dial down the high stakes and let states pick which test scores they include in their school accountability systems, as long as they use at least one set of scores per grade span. The AFT also called for accountability systems to include multiple metrics beyond the test scores, such as graduation rates, school climate surveys and measures of “social and emotional learning.” The Center for American Progress joined the AFT in that statement.
- Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president of education policy, said the think tank’s position is evolving as it learns more and conducts more research about testing. The principles outlined with AFT aren’t a “radical departure” from what CAP has said in the past, she said, and the think tank fully supports the agenda laid out [http://politico.pro/1IEi5qI] by Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this week. The centrist think tank Third Way opposes CAP and AFT’s proposal, saying none of the testing or accountability requirements should be rolled back: http://bit.ly/1xqux71.
- The National Education Association continues to call [http://politico.pro/1yiFL2R ] for an end to the testing mandate. But President Lily Eskelsen García has also said one of the union’s top priorities is to spotlight equity issues through accountability systems that look at everything a school does, so test scores carry far less weight. She told Morning Education last week that the NEA wants to be crystal clear it doesn’t oppose tests – just their misuse. “We know you have to assess kids against benchmarks and determine if they’re learning or not,” she said. “We want good data used in good ways, so we understand how kids are progressing.” That sounds a lot like the AFT/CAP view.
- The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the views of superintendents from both parties, is also calling for flexibility. It’s in favor of keeping the testing mandate, but wants districts to be able to opt out of the statewide tests in favor of their own assessments. Executive Director Chris Minnich told Morning Education that CCSSO thinks one of the testing options proposed in Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s NCLB discussion draft is “too loose,” making it impossible to compare tests statewide. On the evolving positions of the education policy world, he said it’s natural while the bill is in negotiations. “I think everybody is trying not to draw hard lines around this has to be in it and that has to be in it,” he said.
- Conservatives, meanwhile, have lined up to praise Alexander’s NCLB
discussion draft, which toys with the idea of letting local districts opt out of statewide tests and gets the feds out of the business of prescribing accountability systems. One surprise came from Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli. He has long been a very vocal supporter of annual tests. Yet in an op-ed in the National Review, he called the idea of winnowing testing to once per grade span “both modest and sensible.” Petrilli later told Morning Education that he still supports annual testing and should have been “more careful with the wording” of the piece, which he co-wrote with Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. But Petrilli also said he’s open to other concepts; his chief goal is simply to be able to track kids’ progress over time. “If some state comes up with an idea on how to do it differently, we should be open to it,” he said.
- So, could all this maneuvering signal a potential compromise in which Congress would continue to require annual tests in theory, but in practice give states and districts a heap of flexibility? Hess said he sees such a middle ground emerging – and notes that it sounds an awful lot like the framework President Bill Clinton proposed 20 years ago. “We’ve taken a long road home,” he said.