Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Case for Annual Testing

This from Brookings:
The new U.S. Congress is moving post haste to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). With Republicans in the majority in both houses and the relevant committees chaired by individuals with considerable legislative skills (Lamar Alexander in the Senate and John Kline in the House) the smart money is on Obama seeing a bill in this session.

The most recent incarnation of ESEA, signed into law in January of 2002 by President George W. Bush, is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB is the seventh reauthorization of ESEA since 1965, which means that Congress historically reworked this legislation roughly every five years.  We’re now 13 years into NCLB, so reauthorization is long overdue. It is not just the long delay that argues for congressional action, but the extent to which the Obama administration has replaced the provisions of the bill with its own set of priorities implemented through Race to the Top and state waivers.  Whatever one thinks of the appropriate federal role in education, there are surely strong reasons in our constitutional democracy to prefer that we get to where we are going through law rather than executive edict.

That said, this is a perilous moment for reauthorization because of the backlash against standards, testing, and accountability.  The effort to put “the standardized testing machine in reverse,” in the words of New York mayor Bill de Blasio, has diverse bastions of support.  These include: conservatives who object to the seemingly ever expanding reach of the federal government into K-12 public education; concerned parents of children in well-regarded, often suburban schools, who believe that test-prep activities have narrowed the curriculum and put undesirable pressure on their children; progressives such as de Blasio, who see the challenges of public education as best addressed by more funding for schools and broad efforts to eliminate poverty rather than by holding schools or teachers accountable for results; and, teacher unions that are doing what unions are expected to do by trying to protect the less effective of their members from the consequences that follow from exposing their ineptitude in the classroom.

Conservatives, progressives, concerned parents, and unions: That is a formidable set of opponents to standards, testing, and accountability. You would expect these groups to have captured the attention of elected representatives in Washington.  And they have.  Insiders believe that the draft ESEA reauthorization bills that are afoot in the Senate and House will do away with the NCLB requirement that states carry out annual testing of all children in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics. 

There are many things that need fixing in NCLB, certainly including its unrealistic accountability provisions (under which every child in the nation was expected to be proficient in reading and math by last year and schools were threatened with restructuring for failing to make adequate progress towards this goal).  But it would be a serious mistake for Congress to treat standards, testing, and accountability as a single target to be taken out with a shotgun blast.  Each member of the triumvirate can exist on its own and has a different impact on school performance.  And each has a different rationale and political basis in our federal system of education. 
Brookings goes on to argue for retaining in ESEA annual testing requirements that produce  information on the growth in student achievement from one year to the next, while eliminating most of the provisions related to standards and accountability, control over which would revert to the states and school districts.  The argument has four parts: 1) federal control of standards and accountability is unnecessary whereas the provision of information on the performance of schools is a uniquely federal responsibility; 2) test scores are valid indicators of student learning that matters for important long-term outcomes and therefore provide essential information on school performance; 3) several important functions for managing and improving education depend on annual measures of student achievement growth; 4) most of the political opponents of standards, testing, and accountability should favor the retention of annual testing shorn of federally dictated standards and accountability.

No comments: