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Federal Legislation Would Help States Streamline Testing Systems

By guest blogger Alyson Klein. Cross-posted from Politics K-12.

States that want to carefully consider the number and type of tests they offer—and maybe make some changes to their regimens—would get an assist from a federal grant program aimed at improving assessments, under a bill introduced Monday by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., a member of the House education committee.

Taking a hard look at testing requirements is all the rage these days. In fact, earlier this fall, the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state chiefs, and the Council of the Great City Schools, which advocates for big, urban superintendents, agreed to work with their members to do a close review of state and district assessments so that students aren't stuck spending hours on tests that don't have much educational value.

There's even been some discussion in Congress of paring back the number of tests required by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been due for a makeover since 2007. The law calls for testing students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, plus once in high school.

But Bonamici's legislation doesn't have any impact on the number of federally-mandated tests. Instead, it would allow states to funnel federal resources into rethinking the number and types of tests they require. States could use existing formula funds for testing—available through the state assessment grant program, currently funded at $378 million—to make their own assessment systems leaner and more effective by getting test results out to educators and parents faster, providing clearer assessment data, and giving teachers more time to work together to analyze and respond to test data.

States could also use the money to review or "audit" state and local testing systems—and ultimately ditch tests that they decide are old, unnecessary or don't match up with curriculum and standards. And the measure would seek an increase in federal resources for assessments. Right now, the program is authorized at about $490 million, although it actually received only about $380 million this fiscal year. Bonamici's legislation would authorize a slight increase, to $600 million. 

"My goal with this bill is to make sure that we're eliminating asssesments that aren't good quality, and making sure that assessments are actually providing useful information to students and families," Bonamici said in an interview. She's particularly interested in seeing the results of state testing audits. "I think we're going to have a really good picture of how much duplication there is," she added. Those examinations could help  policymakers determine whether any further reduction of tests might be needed, she said. 

Bonamici's bill offers a much more limited approach to reconsidering accountability than legislation introduced earlier this year by other House members, with the strong backing of both teachers' unions. One bill, by Reps. Chris Gibson. R-N.Y., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., developed with a big assist from the National Education Association, would permit states to assess their students only in certain grade spans, reducing the number of federally mandated standardized tests from 14 to six. Another piece of legislation from Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., would change the testing schedule so that students take a math or reading test every other year, instead of annually.

Bonamici's more measured approach means her legislation has gotten the thumbs up from both organizations that want to cut back on tests (like the NEA) and those that tend to support assessment-based accountability and the use of student test data to improve instruction, including the Education Trust, Democrats for Education Reform, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. It's also got bipartisan support: Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., is a co-sponsor. (He's retiring from Congress after this year.)

Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the bill—perhaps because it's a way to address some educators' thirst to reconsider the number of tests students take without ditching the annual statewide assessments the administration sees as key to accountability.

"Annual statewide assessments are critical to ensuring that all students are held to the same high standards and parents, teachers and communities have the information they need about how their children are doing every year," Duncan said in a statement. "However, in many places, the amount of testing that is redundant or simply not helpful for instruction has become a real problem."

Congress only has about a week or so of action left in the current session before leaving town for the year. So Bonamici's bill is just intended to get a conversation started. She's hoping to re-introduce the legislation in 2015, in time to influence the reauthorization of the NCLB law, which is likely begin in earnest early next year.

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