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Feds Should Maintain Annual Student Testing, State Chiefs Tell Washington

Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

By Alyson Klein

There's been a lot of chatter lately about whether Congress will decide to significantly overhaul, or even dismantle, the testing regime at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act through a pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with the goal of giving control over testing back to the states.

But lawmakers are hearing pushback on that idea from a key advocacy group: state education chiefs themselves.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is urging congressional education leaders to pass a rewrite of the law that would keep the NCLB testing schedule intact, meaning that states would still be required to test students using statewide assessments in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

At the same time, the CCSSO's proposal, which you can read in full here would move away from many of the No Child Left Behind law's mandates on school improvement and accountability, and would give states more flexibility over their federal funding. (See more below.)

But the group's testing recommendation is the clear headline.

"It is just imperative to us, to each and every one of us, that we have a check on our students and their academic performance every year," said Lillian Lowery, the state superintendent in Maryland.

Plus, annual testing data can provide really helpful information for parents who are trying to take advantage of school choice options, said John White, the state chief in Louisiana, home to a robust choice program.

Couldn't states just decide to keep giving annual assessments, even if the feds don't require it? That may be the case, Lowery said, but continuing with the requirement is what's ultimately best when it comes to a national policy aimed at getting all students ready for higher education and the workforce.

"We don't want to have 50 different answers to the same question," Lowery said. "That's not the most competitive way to go about this."

White added that getting rid of the federal requirement would likely throw a monkey wrench into state conversations on K-12 accountability. (He didn't say this, but the dialogue is pretty fraught already as states transition to the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments.)

"To throw away 12 years of progress, really at this moment in time, is not helpful," White said. "It will change the national dialogue, and it will put [progress] on hold while the chaos sorts itself out for years."

The CCSSO's plan to keep the testing schedule in place comes with an asterisk that opens the door for some state experimentation. The group wants the new version of the ESEA to include language explicitly allowing states to ask the U.S. Department of Education for permission to develop pilot projects trying out new approaches to assessment that might deviate from the traditional No Child Left Behind schedule.

That would give states the opportunity to seek flexibility along the lines of what New Hampshire has asked the Education Department for. (The department hasn't given the Granite State the green light yet, but it hasn't said no, either.)

And, particularly if Congress decides to take another dozen-plus years to reauthorize whatever the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turns out to be, successful pilots could expand and eventually form the basis of new assesment systems, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO. He said he doesn't expect testing to look the same way in a decade as it does today.

And importantly, states wouldn't have to use one summative test if they didn't want to. They could combine the results of a bunch of smaller, formative tests for accountability purposes. (That general principle is pretty similar to a language in a Senate Democratic ESEA reauthorization bill from 2013, which never passed.)

So what else are the state chiefs proposing? They seem to be borrowing from the NCLB waivers the Obama administration has granted, and from ESEA reauthorization bills introduced in recent years by both Democrats and Republicans. Here's a summary:

  • Accountability. When it comes to accountability, states would have a lot more say about what their systems look like than they do under NCLB Classic, or even the administration's waivers. But states would still need to rate schools annually, and expect "accelerated progress" for student subgroups that have traditionally been overlooked, including poor and minority students. States would also need to continue to report assessment and graduation-rate data, broken out by subgroups.
  • School improvement. States would still have to identify their lowest-performing (and highest-performing) schools and target them for serious interventions (or rewards), just as they do under the Obama administration's waivers. But states wouldn't have to use any sort of federal prescriptions for turning the low-performing schools around (a la the School Improvement Grants).
  • Student achievement. Another key difference from the waivers: To have accountability systems and measure progress, states would clearly need to set some sort of student-achievement goals. But states could come up with those goals on their own, without needing a stamp of approval from the federal department.
  • Teacher evaluation. Under the proposal, the feds would be out of the business of requiring states to evaluate teachers. But if states want to create evaluation systems (and the CCSSO is all for that), they should be able to use federal teacher-quality money to make that happen, the chiefs say. (That's pretty similar to language that was in a reauthorization bill introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now the chairman of the Senate education committee.)
  • Flexible funds. The plan seeks to make it a lot easier for states to move money from one federal pot to another, with the goal of providing more comprehensive support systems for at-risk kids. (That general idea was the basis of a bill introduced a few years back by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, which the CCSSO supported.)

It's worth noting, of course, that the CCSSO is the group that, with the National Governors Association, helped birth the Common Core State Standards. The chiefs' proposal would seem to give states that have adopted the standards, or are moving toward other college- and career-ready expectations, room to continue with that work.

While Minnich said the proposal represents a consensus of a majority of state chiefs (it can't be easy to get all 50 on board), there are some states that may like to see Congress go further and craft a bill that actually cuts down the number of federally mandated tests. Vermont, for instance, included grade-span state testing in its initial waiver application, but was rebuffed by the federal Education Department.

Meanwhile, Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent in California, said the prospect of more control over testing is intriguing, particularly as his state seeks to transition to an assessment system that he says will more fully capture students' higher-level thinking skills.

"If we want this richer way of doing assessments, we need to clear some room," he said. "If we could get away from [testing] every student, every year, in these two subjects, that helps create possibilities for us."

So what's the reaction?

The overall proposal got a thumbs-up from Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization that hasn't always seen eye to eye with the CCSSO on these issues.

The highlight, she said, is that states say they want to hold their schools accountable for results for low-income and minority students.

"For us, that's a very big step for the chiefs to say to the federal government, 'Make us do this,' " she said. "Same with testing. For them to be embracing both is a big deal."

And Michael Cohen, a former Clinton administration official who is now the president of the group Achieve, also gave the proposal a positive review. He's especially a fan of the idea of pilot projects. "We don't want to be stuck with the same old tests," he said. "Once reauthorized, ESEA tends to stay around for a while."

A Senate GOP aide was a bit more muted. "It is important to have the conversation about the appropriate amount of tests, who requires them, and what we do with them," the aide said. "State chiefs have an important voice in this debate, but they should be encouraged to clearly articulate what they do with all of these tests and whether any additional state or local tests have added to the cascade of tests that parents, students, and teachers are concerned about."

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and an almunus of the George W. Bush administration), who counts himself a fan of the CCSSO proposal, sees a lot in it that could appeal to Democrats and Republicans, and maybe even form the basis of a final agreement on ESEA reauthorization down the line.

"I think my sense is that they are picking their fights carefully," he said of the state chiefs. States, he believes, are saying, "We are ready to be in the driver's seat again on education, and that's the right position."

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