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When It Comes to Testing, Is Santorum Like Romney?

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been taking some flak on the campaign trail for his support of the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2001. He says his vote for the bill when he was in the U.S. Senate was a big mistake and he was just trying to be a good soldier for President George W. Bush.

Campaign 2012

But, in an interview with FOX News over the weekend, Santorum does say that the NCLB law brought one good thing with it: the requirement that states to offer standardized tests, which he thinks helped expose low-performing schools. Check out the transcript here, and a video here. The NCLB exchange starts at minute 11:40.

That line of thinking means that, at least when it comes to the testing part of the NCLB law, the former Pennsylvania senator is a lot like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, aka the guy Santorum is trying to knock out to get the GOP's presidential nomination.

Romney's also a testing fan, although his current views on NCLB itself are a little murkier. As a candidate in 2008, Romney was NCLB's biggest cheerleader in the GOP presidential field, even when it was becoming no longer cool for Republicans to stand by the law. In fact, during a 2007 debate, he cited NCLB as one issue where he disagreed with the Republican base.

But this time around, Romney has been more coy on this issue. He doesn't talk about education much on the campaign trail, and it's tough to say exactly where he'd take the reauthorization of the law if he became president. In a speech on the NCLB law, he said, "I supported that and continue to support testing at the state level of our kids. But the real answer for me on education is get it back to the states."

Robert Costrell, a University of Arkansas professor, who told me that Romney supports the law in general, and thinks the federal government has a limited role in encouraging accountability and school choice. That's helpful, but it could translate into a lot of different policies.

But, like Santorum, Romney has been very clear about his love for standardized tests. It's a major theme of the very illuminating education chapter of Romney's book No Apology.

"President George W. Bush was right to champion the No Child Left Behind legislation, which requires states to test student progress and to evaluate school performance—it was the only way to ensure that critical information reached the public," Romney wrote. "Only the federal government had the clout to force testing through the barricade mounted by the national teachers' unions."

And Romney goes on to say that, if making sure students can read and write is "teaching to test," then "I'm all for it—our kids can't succeed in life without these basic literacy and numeracy skills."

Support for testing in some form may be in tune with the views some congressional Republicans. On the one hand, the legislation just approved on a partisan vote by the House education committee takes a big step back when it comes to the federal role in K-12. States would no longer have to set goals for student achievement. But the legislation largely keeps in place the current law's testing schedule—and requirement for disaggregation of data—minus science tests. Ready-made platform for Santorum? Romney too, or does it go too far for his taste?

Hard to say, since neither man has spoken about the bill publicly. And it's been easy for them to avoid taking a position, since education has been such an afterthought in the campaign. In fact, former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein has an op-ed in the Washington Post today, in which he talks about how disappointed he is that K-12 hasn't had a higher profile so far.

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