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Is Sen. Alexander Leaning Toward Keeping NCLB's Tests? Seems That Way

It sounds like Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, is leaning toward keeping the No Child Left Behind Act's testing schedule in a rewritten version of the law, while giving free rein to states on how to use those tests to inform teaching and learning and hold schools accountable for results. 

Alexander, speaking at a Brookings Institution event on school choice Wednesday, put the testing question squarely on the table in a draft bill to update the law, offering two options on assessments for lawmakers to ponder. One would let states do pretty much whatever they want on testing. The other would keep the law's current schedule in place, but give districts the chance to try out their own approaches, with state permission. 

Over the course of hearings on revising the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Alexander says he's heard testimony from educators and experts which have him convinced that it's local and state assessments that make up the bulk of the current overtesting burden.

When it comes to Washington's role, experts seem to agree that, "it's the strict federal accountability system that's the problem, not the tests," Alexander said.

Alexander added that he hasn't completely made up his mind on whether to keep in place the testing mandate at the center of the NCLB law. But, he also said that if the tests stay in, there should be a major shift when it comes to the federal role on accountability.

"I'm reluctant to put the tests back in unless there's some change in the federal accountability system," he said at the Brookings event. 

Those comments aren't really very surprising or even new. Alexander has said similar things during a hearing on teacher evaluation and one on state innovation, both covered by my colleague, Lauren Camera. And he made the same points in this interview with Time magazine.

House and Senate

It's worth noting that Alexander would likely have support for that approach from his counterparts in the House. The House GOP's NCLB rewrite bill, which was introduced Tuesday and closely mirrors the version that passed the House back in 2013 on a totally partisan vote, would keep the testing schedule in place, but give states a much freer hand over accountability systems.

Both the House and Senate legislation would call for schools to disaggregate student data to show how subgroup students are performing relative to their peers, but otherwise generally leave the feds out of accountability and improvement.

One big difference between the House bill and the Senate's draft on accountability, however: The Senate draft would also open the door to local assessment systems, as long as states give the OK. That's not in the House legislation. 

School Choice

Alexander also talked up his views on school choice. His draft NCLB rewrite bill would allow states to change the way federal Title I funds flow, so that they could follow children to the public school of their choice. This concept, known as Title I portability, is already getting major pushback from education organizations and from the Center on American Progress, a think tank closely associated with the Obama administration. CAP put out a report Tuesday morning that contends portability would divert Title I funds away from the poorest schools

But Alexander made the opposite argument, noting that schools that spend more on education (including in the form of teachers' salaries) get more Title I money than other schools. 

"There's general agreement that the Title I money, which is supposed to help low-income children, doesn't really get to the children who need it," he said. More on Alexander and choice from my colleague, Ariana Prothero, here. 

Inside Baseball 

Alexander gave folks a glimpse into the process he is using to advance the bill. Democrats have said they're concerned that Alexander didn't try harder to come to an agreement with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on the legislation before introducing his discussion draft. Alexander says there's still time for collaboration, and he's planning to keep the process open and bipartisan, even if the legislation itself doesn't have Murray's support from the get-go.  

An NCLB update, he said, doesn't have to start with a bipartisan product. "I"m trying to get a bipartisan process in place," he said. He'll need just 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles and get his bill through the Senate, and then bill can head to a conference committee at which there will be three players: the House, the Senate, and the administration.

"I'm hopeful and optimistic that a bipartisan process will create a bipartisan result," he said. 

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