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NEA Pushes Legislation to Reduce Testing

The federal footprint on standardized testing would shrink dramatically under a bill set to be introduced by Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., that has major backing from the National Education Association, the largest teachers union.

Under the legislation, instead of testing students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, states would assess their students only in certain grade spans. That would reduce the number of federally mandated standardized tests from 14 to six.

Does the idea sound familiar? It should. Gibson tried to get a similar provision attached to a bill to renew the No Child Left Behind Act that passed the House last year. But the language - which was offered as an amendment in the House Rules Committee - wasn't allowed to proceed to the floor for a vote (meaning it likely didn't have the support of House leaders.)

This legislation may also face long political odds—both Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat, have said they think that the requirement to annually test students and show how poor and minority students fared relative to their peers was one of the best things to come out of the flawed NCLB law. Kline kept the testing schedule in his ESEA renewal bill, which passed the House, and so did Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee. The Senate legislation was approved in committee, but has yet to advance to the floor.

The Gibson-Sinema bill is designed to be attached to a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which doesn't seem likely to move anytime soon.

But Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA, thinks grade-span testing is an idea whose time has come. Less frequent testing will give teachers a chance to offer broader, more engaging instruction, the union argues.

"We've seen a groundswell around the misuse of standardized testing. The types of assessments being done are not [intended] to improve student performance," Kusler said. Instead, they are tied to school accountability, she said.

Increasingly, of course, those tests are also being used to gauge teacher performance, as more states adopt evaluations based in part on student outcomes (a requirement in the Obama administration's waivers that give states relief from parts of the NCLB law.) If the bill were to pass and states ditched annual testing, it would be hard (if not impossible) to determine the impact of an individual teacher on their students' growth.

But Kusler argued state tests are a "shallow measure" of a teacher's overall performance, and noted that the vast majority of teachers—70 percent—don't lead tested subjects.

If the bill gains traction, civil rights groups are almost certain to argue that less frequent state testing would mean more poor and minority kids slip through the cracks, since their performance wouldn't be measured as frequently.

But Kusler thinks that's not the case. "Students are being assessed all the time to improve instruction," she said. While she realizes the bills may face some political hurdles, she sees it as an "important first step in a dialogue" around the right role for the feds in testing.

What do you think? Would less frequent testing mean less stringent accountability? Or more time for richer instruction? What's the right role for the feds here? Comments section is open! 

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