Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about the administration's priorities for education at Seaton Elementary in Washington on Monday. Duncan said that testing US schoolchildren annually in math and reading is critical for measuring their educational progress, setting the stage for what is likely to be a contentious Capitol Hill debate on the federal role in education.

Arne Duncan to GOP Congress: Testing is still essential

As the new GOP Congress ramps up legislation to curb federal role in public schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan defends annual testing mandates as essential to progress, especially for the most disadvantaged kids.

Any future revision of No Child Left Behind – which officially expired some eight years ago – should retain federally mandated annual tests, according to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

That was one of the biggest messages in a speech Secretary Duncan gave Monday morning, an attempt to outline the administration's position on a controversial reauthorization bill before congressional Republicans introduce their own proposals for the bill, which could come as early as this week.

Everyone agrees that the Elementary and Secondary Education ACT (ESEA), which became known as No Child Left Behind after President George W. Bush's accountability-driven rewrite was passed in 2002, is long overdue for an overhaul. But opinions differ sharply on what form the new bill should take. Among the most contentious elements: The annual math and English testing requirement for students in Grades 3 through 8, who then are tested once more in high school.

Advocates for the testing – which include civil rights groups and reform-minded education leaders on both sides of the aisle – say that such testing is absolutely essential to ensure that the most disadvantaged kids don't fall through the cracks, and to give administrators the tools and information they need to deliver high-quality education and ensure all kids are learning.

Opponents – which include both major teachers unions and Republicans who want less federal intrusion in schools – argue that the testing has become an onerous burden on schools, kids, and teachers that has led to a teach-to-the-test mentality, with high-stakes consequences that are unfair to teachers and students, and far too much time spent testing rather than teaching in the classroom.

In his remarks to a Washington elementary school Monday morning, Duncan – who acknowledged that in some instances "there are too many tests that take up too much time," and pledged to find "a better balance" –  stressed that retaining the testing requirement is of utmost importance.

“Let me be clear: If we walk away from responsibility as a country – if we make our national education responsibilities optional – we would turn back the clock on educational progress,” Duncan said in his speech. “And when so many states and districts have put in place the building blocks to sustain educational progress, when so many educators are working so hard to raise the bar for their students and support them in getting there, reversing course would be a terrible mistake.”

He also called for an additional $2.7 billion in federal spending for education and targeting resources to the lowest-performing schools, as well as improving access to preschool and continuing teacher evaluations tied to student achievement.

Duncan's concern that the testing requirement could be rolled back is a real one, especially after Republicans took back control of the Senate last week. When Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the new chairman of the Senate education committee, signaled last month that he would consider ending that federal testing mandate when he introduces a bill to reauthorize ESEA, many observers wondered whether he might be able to get enough Democratic allies to get such a bill passed.

Duncan's speech today "was mostly to try to protect his left flank," says Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. "This was a speech to convince Democrats to stay on board with the administration’s priorities around education."

Both major teachers unions have called for rolling back the requirements – instead implementing "grade-span" testing that would test students just once in elementary, middle, and high school – as well as doing away with the often onerous accountability and teacher evaluation measures connected to those tests. 

"Current federal educational policy – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and waivers – has enshrined a focus on testing, not learning, especially high-stakes testing and the consequences and sanctions that flow from it," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. "The waiver strategy and Race to the Top exacerbated the test-fixation that was put in place with NCLB, allowing sanctions and consequences to eclipse all else. From his words today, it seems the secretary may want to justify and enshrine that status quo and that's worrisome."

At the same time, a group of 19 civil rights groups released a statement echoing Duncan's call to keep annual testing, as well as state accountability systems that target achievement gaps.

In a blog post explaining that support, Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, which advocates for low-income children, praised the gains that have been made for poor and minority students since the imposition of federally required annual tests. "Kids who are not tested end up not counting," she wrote.

Efforts to get the ESEA reauthorized have failed in previous efforts, but a number of observers say they're optimistic about the bill's chances this time around – and note that the lines of a possible compromise already seem clear.

The final bill, says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, will likely keep the annual testing requirement in some form – essentially enshrining the transparency that many education experts say was the greatest achievement of No Child Left Behind – while doing away with the much of the labeling and federal mandates and consequences currently enshrined in the law.

"We’ve come to agree that the federal government isn’t any good at that," says Mr. Hess. The Republican position, he adds, is that such a move "isn't a retreat, but a course correction, to say let's keep the parts that make sense and ditch the parts that don’t."

No Child Left Behind called for all students to meet "proficiency" requirements by 2014, and imposed increased sanctions on schools that failed to make adequate progress each year. As the requirements became increasingly unrealistic, the administration has dealt with the flaws in the law through a piecemeal system of waivers, in which states are released from the requirements – provided they sign on to certain education reforms, including having teacher evaluations tied to test-score gains.

Hess and others believe it won't be difficult for Republicans in both the House and the Senate to get enough Democrats to agree with the main points of such a bill – and Duncan's position, wanting to hang on to many of the federal accountability requirements, may seem largely irrelevant.

Mr. Whitehurst of Brookings agrees that a compromise this year seems likely, possibly retaining some federal accountability measure when it comes to the very worst performing schools, but largely getting rid of the most onerous federal mandates and consequences.

But keeping the basic testing requirements in place is important, he says.

"If that’s gone, then ESEA is back to 1965 with good intentions and money and very little else," Whitehurst says. "I think there are people on the Republican side who understand this."

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