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Congressional Education Leaders Chime in on NCLB Testing Debate

Happy 13th birthday to No Child Left Behind, the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As we pause today to reflect on how much has changed stayed the same in the education arena since January 8, 2002, some readers may breathe a sigh of relief to know that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both parties are already seriously thinking about how to give the law a much-needed facelift and we're not even a week into the 114th Congress.

As we've been reporting, one of the most significant policy debates at the heart of the forthcoming reauthorization will be how, or if, to change the law's testing requirements.

Currently the law mandates statewide assessments in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But towards the end of the last Congress, lawmakers began introducing bills that called for grade-span testing or reducing the number of required tests. Proposals along those lines (see here and here) will likely be revived and revisited over the next few months.

Indeed, the fun begins Jan. 20 in the Senate, when the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee plans to hold a hearing about testing.

Ahead of the big debate, we took the pulse of the principal players, including the chairmen and ranking members of each chambers' education committees. The bottom line? None of them are ready to go on the record with specifics about where they want to go, but clearly, the issue of testing is on their minds.

Here's what they had to say:

"I would like to spend the next month finishing our work on fixing No Child Left Behind, and I think a hearing on testing would be one of the subjects we ought to have a hearing on before that," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who recently took the reins of the education committee, said Wednesday.

When asked whether grade-span testing is a policy he plans to support, Alexander demurred.

"We'll see," he said. "I want to deliberately raise the question, 'Are there too many tests? And are they the right tests?' And I think we need to discuss that at the hearing." 

When pressed as to whether the chairman was leaning one way or the other, Alexander said, "Not entirely."​

Behind the scenes however, Senate GOP aides are hard at work on a draft bill that could seriously roll back federal testing mandates. 

Meanwhile, Alexander's counterpart on the committee, ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said through an aide that testing is an issue that she has heard a lot about from teachers and parents in her home state and one that she plans to focus on during the reauthorization process.

While Murray believes, the aide said, that the federal government has "an important role to play in making sure that no student is falling through the cracks ... She is also concerned that while assessments can help improve teaching and learning, provide parents with valuable information about their child's progress, and ensure that all students and schools are held to high standards, there is too often a focus on low-quality and redundant testing at the expense of learning--and that needs to change."

In the House, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said he is open to the idea of grade-span testing, but would insist on some type of mechanism to collect disaggregated data that shows gaps between subgroups of students.

"That way, we can say, 'Hey, look, we're leaving this segment of the student body behind,'" Kline said in an interview in November. "I'm not a big proponent of piling on lots of tests, but we have to have some measure."

That's good news for Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the committee, who agreed with Kline Wednesday when he said, "One of the good qualities of No Child Left Behind is that is exposed school that were not performing."

When pressed as to whether that meant he favors maintaining the requirement for annual testing, Scott said, "There's no magic. You don't need state and federal tests; you need to make sure you have enough tests to make sure you can tell which schools are performing and which schools are not."​

But moving a reauthorization will take more than just the principal players, especially in the Senate.

While the House can be expected to clear any Republican-backed reauthorization because of the GOP's stronghold on the chamber—they control 246 seats to Democrats' 188—it's a different story in the Senate, where Republicans will need to capture at least 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles.

Republicans currently control 54 seats in the Senate, meaning they'll have to woo independents, like Sen. Angus King of Maine, who typically caucuses with Democrats, and moderate Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, if they're serious about reauthorizing the outdated law.

Manchin, who is not on the education committee, but who has waded into the education policy foray before, said Tuesday that he is worried about redundancy of testing, but that he hasn't been thoroughly briefed yet about the specifics of grade-span testing.

That's likely the case for most members of Congress, as they get up to speed on various policy issues.

"I'm anxious to hear that debate," Manchin said. "The bottom line is, kids need to be tested. You need to know where the kids are at certain ages, certain development ages, and if they're prepared to go on. I'm anxious to see what happens, and Lamar [Alexander] is going to be very methodical about this. He will work very hard on it."

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