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No Resolution to Annual-Testing Debate After First NCLB Reauthorization Hearing

In the opening bid to reauthorize the federal K-12 education law, No Child Left Behind, the Senate education committee took up the divisive issue of testing, in which the overwhelming recommendation to the committee was to maintain the current law's annual-testing regimen.

In fact, only two of the six witnesses who testified at Wednesday's hearing recommended eliminating the federally mandated testing schedule. Both are teachers in the New York City school system.

The hearing is the first in a series that will take on the biggest policy issues involved in overhauling the NCLB law—and so far, testing has turned out to be the chief boogeyman.

Indeed, after two-and-a-half hours of testimony from a diverse panel of witnesses, chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., still hadn't come down on one side of the testing coin.

"I think whether we keep the federal tests depends upon what kind of accountability system we have," Alexander said in an interview after the hearing. "The accountability system may be more of a problem than the tests, and the state and local tests may be more of a problem than the federal tests. So they all have to be considered at once, and I don't have a solution yet."

A quick refresher in case you're just coming into this topic:

The law mandates 17 annual tests: One reading and one math test each year in grades 3 through 8, and once for each subject in high school. Also, science is assessed once in elementary, middle, and high school. But a reauthorization discussion draft that Alexander unveiled last week includes two testing options: One that would keep in place the current annual system, and another that would let states use any type of testing schedule they please, including annual tests, portfolio exams, grade-span tests, and more. (Check out this cheat sheet on the discussion draft if you're looking for more details.)

The debate over testing has resulted in some strange bedfellows, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle coming down on all sides of the discussion.

Some, like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the education committee, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have been very clear that annual tests should be required for accountability purposes if the federal government is giving states billions of dollars for their education systems. 

"Assessments help parents and communities hold schools accountable," Murray said in her opening remarks. "If a school is failing students year after year, parents and communities deserve to have that information and be assured the school will get the resources it needs to improve."

Murray said that the reauthorization should encourage states and districts to reduce redundant and low-quality tests. But, she added, it would be irresponsible to spend billions in federal taxpayer dollars without knowing if the law is effective, a notion that Warren also drove home in her remarks.

Others, like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., are somewhere in the middle. During the hearing, she touted a bill she introduced on Tuesday with Rep. Suzanne Bomamici, D-Ore., which would allow states to use federal funds to audit their assessment system to identify and eliminate redundant tests.

Still others, like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., ripped on the current testing system.

"To me it's pretty clear that [annual federal tests] are designed to test the school and not the students," he said, adding that they're bad for teachers.

[As an aside, if you're wondering why this is a list of Democrats, it's because other than Alexander, only three other Republicans were present for the discussion portion of the hearing.]

But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, nailed the crux of the debate when she asked witnesses this question: "Do you believe that giving states the flexibility to choose grade-span testing, which is used now for science, would help resolve the concerns about over-testing that have been expressed, or would the result be that we decrease accountability?"  (Grade-span testing is clearly going to be a point of discussion. A bipartisan bill putting the testing regime in place was re-introduced in the House the same day as the hearing.)

Witness Testimony

In answering Collins, Marty West, previously an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and an important education policy counselor to Alexander, explained that data shows the bulk of testing time is not devoted to the 17 federally mandated tests. He cited a new report from Ohio's Department of Education that found that federal tests only account for 32 percent of overall testing requirements.

In his testimony, West recommended maintaining the law's current requirement that states test students annually in math and reading in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, while giving states autonomy over all decisions about the design of their accountability systems, including how schools and teachers are identified as under-performing and what should be done to improve their performance.

The annual tests, West said, "ushered in a new era in education research and has made it possible to develop new indicators of schools' performance based on their contribution to student learning."

Tom Boasberg, superintendent of the 90,000-student Denver school district, agreed.

He said that annual measures of progress for students in literacy and math are important in providing transparency that is "vital" for school districts to effectively measure growth. But he agreed that overall, there should be fewer and shorter tests.

"I do not see why we cannot have good measures of student progress that are limited to no more than three to four hours combined time for literacy and math per year," he said. "We as a state also need to eliminate the other state tests that have been added in recent years that are unrelated to the law before this committee today."

Meanwhile, Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner of education at the New Hampshire Department of Education, said that the reauthorization should maintain the annual tests, but allow states to create their own testing scheme. 

Notably, Leather has worked with the Council of Chief State School Officers in creating priorities for how Congress should reauthorize the law, and New Hampshire is working with four school districts to pilot competency-based assessments. 

But Leather was quick to put a caveat on the Granite State's testing experiment: "However, just because we are piloting this system in several school districts does not mean we as a state want to move away form our current annual tests," he said. "We believe it is critical to measure students at least once a year on their academic performance."

The only witness to back the current testing system and also oppose giving states flexibility surrounding the tests was Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which represents 200 civil right organizations. And he had some choice words for the chairman's discussion draft, which he argued would allow states to water down standards and "settle for a 'nice try' rather than real results in closing gaps in achievement and high school graduation rates."

"The [draft] bill bends over backwards to accommodate the interest of state and local government entities that have both failed our children and avoided any real accountability for their failures," he said.

Meanwhile, Harvest Collegiate High School teacher Stephen Lazar and Jia Lee, a special education teacher at the Earth School (where last year more than 50 percent of parents refused to allow their students to take New York's standardized tests), rallied against keeping the annual tests.

"Last year I decided that I am obligated and accountable to my students and families, and that is why, as a conscientious objector, I will not administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place," said Lee.

Moving Forward

As for a timeline, Alexander said he plans to complete markup of the bill in committee by the end of February and then expects it to move to the floor of the Senate for an open debate that will last at least two weeks.

Alexander again underscored his commitment to working in a bipartisan process, acknowledging that he'll need to garner 60 votes in the Senate and the president's signature for any bill to become a law.

He also hinted at what we might expect in forthcoming hearings: "Washington's involvement, in effect mandating [the] common core and teacher evaluation, is creating a backlash, making it harder for states to set higher standards and evaluate teaching."

The next hearing, slated for Jan. 27, will take up the issue of teachers and leaders.

As for whether Alexander was leaning a particular way on the testing debate, he said he is still thinking and noted that he and Murray had written to states asking them how many tests they administered, and whether they were mandated by the federal government or their state and local governments.

In highlighting just how unsure Alexander is on the testing issue, he said in closing remarks that one area he'd like to look into is whether the government should provide more funding for the development of better assessments—though he quickly added that the government's "sticky fingers" is always a concern.

"I know it comes as a shock," Alexander said in the post-hearing interview, "but I think it's OK to have an open mind on some questions, and mine is still open." 

UPDATE: Meanwhile, in speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the same day as the hearing, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the odds of a NCLB reauthorization at 50 percent. Duncan has been adamant that the new law should retain the annual testing requirement.

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