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Rewriting No Child Left Behind: Three Testing Issues to Watch

So, despite all of the political pushback to testing, we all know that annual tests are likely to stick around if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in coming months. (That wasn't always a slam dunk, but now it basically is.)

But that doesn't mean that testing isn't—or hasn't been—an issue behind the scenes, as congressional aides and the top lawmakers on education issues—Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., along with the Obama administration—work through key ESEA issues. 

Why? Well, even though both the ESEA rewrite bill that passed the Senate with big, bipartisan backing, and the one that barely squeaked through the House with just GOP support, keep annual tests, they go very different ways on a lot of other assessment issues. 

Here are some of the key distinctions between the bills—and the administration's testing vision: 

1. Opt-outs

Where the House stands: Back in July, in order to win support for the House ESEA bill, House leaders allowed lawmakers to vote on an amendment allowing parents to decide to excuse their kids from standardized testing, without any penalties for schools. The amendment passed with bipartisan support.

Where the Senate stands: No federally sanctioned opt-outs. In fact, the Senate voted against them. States and districts, on the other hand, could allow for opt-outs. But the NCLB law's current requirement, which calls for 95 percent of students to participate in state tests, or else the school is considered low-performing, still stands. (Confused? Check out page 8 of this report from the Congressional Research Service, which explains the differences between the bills. And big thanks to FairTest's Monty Neill for alerting me to the language allowing districts and states to let parents opt-out, even though it wouldn't change federal accountability.)

Argument for keeping the House opt-out language in: On the one hand, kids wouldn't have to take standardized tests if their parents didn't want them to, which some folks see as a big plus for parental choice and small government. Plus, the Senate language arguably sends mixed messages on opt-outs. 

Argument for getting rid of the House opt-out language:  School leaders could encourage the parents of say, a student in special education, to opt-out, thus making the school's test results look better, some say. Plus, opt-outs make it harder to see any real, comparable data on a school. 

2. Local testing

Where the House stands: The House would allow pretty much any district to try out their own testing system, as long as a) the state is cool with it and b) the local tests can be compared to the state assessment.

Where the Senate stands: The Senate bill sets up a pilot project, giving up to five states the chance to try out local tests, with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education. As with the House bill, the tests have to be comparable to the state assessment. And importantly, these local tests aren't supposed to be used forever—the point is for districts to try out new forms of assessment (as New Hampshire is doing with performance tasks) that could eventually go statewide and be used by everyone. That way states don't get stuck with the same old assessment for years on end.

Argument for House bill: More freedom for states and districts, more room for experimentation and local decision making. Plus a smaller role for the feds, which is ultimately what Congress is going for here.

Argument for the Senate bill: Better for equity, especially for poor and minority kids. After all, folks say, you wouldn't want students in say, an impoverished city to take a different test from students in a tony suburb forever and ever. Plus, having the department review the systems provides an extra check on the whole comparability thing. And having most students take the same (or similar) tests provides the best data on what's working and what isn't. Local tests make that harder to figure out. 

3. How Much Tests Count for Accountability 

If I had to bet, I'd guess this has generated at least some discussion, even though both the House and Senate bills take similar approaches. Both would basically allow states to decide just how much of a role tests should play in accountability.

But an amendment that Senate Democrats supported (but which ultimately failed) called for states to develop accountability systems that weighed student outcomes (tests, but also graduation rates, English Language Proficiency and other academic factors) more than say, school climate.

Argument for letting states decide: Many folks think standardized testing has become way too prominent in education. This is a chance to dial it back. Plus, again, this would give control to states. If they want to make tests paramount in accountability, they could, they just wouldn't have to.

Argument for making sure tests, or at least student outcomes, are a big part of the accountability picture: Equity again. If the point of school is for all kids to learn and get ready for college and the workforce, shouldn't most schools be judged on academic factors so we can see how they're progressing?  Daria Hall, the Education Trust's K-12 guru, brought up the weight of tests on a panel at the Center for American Progress. States, she said, shouldn't be able to design accountability systems that give the heaviest weight to say, attendance, while paying a lot less attention to how students are performing. (Watch the event here.)

So where do these things stand? No way to say yet. But if lawmakers are serious about passing an ESEA rewrite bill by the end of the year, we should find out pretty soon where things ended up. 

In the meantime, what do you think of each option? Comments section is open!

What else might folks be talking about backstage? Key differences between the bills here

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