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Democrats' Bill in Congress Aims to Help States Ditch Low-Quality Tests

Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

By Lauren Camera

A pair of Democrats on the education committees in the House and Senate introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow states to use federal funds to audit their assessment systems and eliminate poor-quality and redundant tests.

The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., comes just one day before the Senate education committee's hearing on testing and accountability—the first of a series focusing on overhauling the No Child Left Behind law.

"Assessments can help determine students' progress, inform instruction, and support academic growth, but too many tests fail to meet these standards," said Bonamici, who introduced the bill last Congress as well.

Notably, the bill wouldn't impact the number of federally mandated tests, a debate that will be front and center at Wednesday's Senate hearing and beyond, as Congress begins rewriting NCLB, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Instead, the Bonamici-Baldwin bill would allow states to spend federal resources to rethink the number and types of tests they require. It would also allow them to use the funds to improve their use of assessment data, such as by providing more time for educators to design instruction based on test results or fast-tracking the delivery of test data to students and families.

The funding would be made available through the state assessment grant program, which all states get a slice of. The grant program is currently authorized at about $490 million, although it actually received only about $380 million last fiscal year.

"This commonsense legislation gives us the tools and resources to work with states and districts to reduce unnecessary assessments, especially by targeting redundant and low-quality tests," Baldwin said.

The measure, officially named the Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely (SMART) Act, is a tempered approach to the testing debate.

For that reason, the bill has a slew of support from stakeholders, including both national teachers' unions; civil rights groups such as the Education Trust, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the National Council of La Raza; and the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the Obama administration.

"We need a new accountability system that moves from a test-and-punish model to one that's focused on supporting and improving," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers. "The SMART Act is a good first step toward putting assessments in perspective so that we have better and fewer tests."

But as the debate on testing evolves over the next couple of weeks, watch for additional testing bills—specifically bills that would cut down on the number of federally mandated tests— to come out of the woodwork.

Last Congress, for example, Reps. Chris Gibson. R-N.Y., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., proposed a bill that would permit states to assess their students only in certain grade spans, reducing the number of federally mandated standardized tests from 14 to six. And Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced a bill that would change the testing schedule so that students take a math or reading test every other year, instead of annually.

Already, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and chairman of the Senate education committee, has included language in a NCLB reauthorization discussion draft that would allow states to test only in certain grade spans. And while there is interest on both sides of the aisle to reduce redundant and poor-quality tests, it's unclear whether there's enough support among lawmakers to entirely dismantle the current testing schedule.

"I think there's going to broad consensus to decrease the emphasis of testing in schools," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who sits on the education committee. "But I am not interested in completely eliminating accountability and completely eliminating the ability to track the achievement gap."

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