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Skeptics of Standardized Tests Weigh In on ESEA

As January approaches, education organizations in Washington are starting to lay the groundwork for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind law. And that includes the contingent of Democrats who are skeptical of standardized testing.

One of the groups on that side of the debate is the Forum for Education and Democracy, which held an event on Capitol Hill this morning to draw policymakers' attention to schools that have embraced project-based learning and other methods that proponents say help develop higher-order thinking skills, like the ability to research, analyze, and question.

The title of the event, "Beyond Standardized Testing: Investing in a Culture of Learning," said it all. It featured both students and teachers talking about their experiences at small schools that place a premium on project-based learning and performance-oriented tasks. It was pretty sparsely attended, maybe because a lot of people have their minds on health care right now. But the folks who came seemed supportive.

One of the speakers was Deborah Meier, who is associated with the Forum and is a professor at New York University. In case you aren't up on your Bridging Differences, she doesn't think the Obama administration is likely to embrace her ideas in the reauthorization of ESEA or fund them as part of its new $350 million program aimed at developing common assessments.

"I think the Obama administration has really bought into the worst aspects of NCLB," she said.

She's particularly dismayed about proposals that encourage districts to reward teachers partly for boosting student test scores. She said that policy could be very damaging to the types of schools the event highlighted.

I asked her, then, why she had come to Washington, given that she didn't seem to think it was very friendly political environment. She said that there are folks out there who agree with her ideas but don't think they could be brought to scale. She wanted to show them examples where it's working. It sounded to me like she was suggesting that rank-and-file lawmakers (probably mostly Democrats) could be persuaded one by one.

That was basically the game-plan folks in this camp had when Congress took a stab at renewing the law back in 2007, with mixed results. We'll see how it plays out this time, as Congress starts to wade into ESEA renewal, now with a Democrat in the White House.

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