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Obama Administration Won’t Back Away from Annual Student Testing

Education Secretary Arne Duncan Monday issued a firm call to continue annual standardized testing under the elementary and secondary education law known as No Child Left Behind.  

The secretary’s speech framed his argument for annual testing — along with the rest of his priorities for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 107-110) — in terms of educational equity and justice concerns. He invoked the law’s origins 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The law expired in 2007, and congressional education leaders have said they hope to have a bill through committee and to the floor in each chamber by the spring.

Republicans have indicated they are open to arguments from teachers’ unions and some parents that the current federal mandate for testing is overly burdensome and has shifted too much class time from instruction to test preparation.

Students take tests once annually in reading and math in grades three through eight and once again in high school.

But parents, teachers and students have “both the right and the absolute need” to know how much progress students are making each year, Duncan said during his speech at an elementary school in Washington.

His stance echoes reauthorization priorities issued last week both by the Council of Chief State School Officers and by a coalition of civil rights groups including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and The Education Trust.

In a nod to those concerned about over-testing, Duncan urged Congress to encourage states and districts to streamline existing examinations and to require states to set limits for the time spent on tests.

The secretary’s call comes a week ahead of the first Senate hearing on the reauthorization, which will focus on testing, set for Jan. 20.

He also called for more support for teachers, and said that their evaluations should still include, as one component, students’ test scores.

No Child Left Behind doesn’t require states to link scores to evaluations. But the Education Department has made it a requirement of states seeking waivers from existing accountability measures under the law. Past Republican reauthorizations have permitted, but not required, states to tie test scores to evaluations.

The concessions were not enough to win support from teachers’ unions, which continued to call for grade-span testing and de-coupling teacher evaluations and test scores.

Nor did it win the backing of at least one House Democrat.

Mark Takano of California, a former teacher, said annual testing doesn’t appropriately measure student growth, particularly of students who are already several years behind, and curriculum designed around tests numbs students, impacting both teaching and learning.

“I’m skeptical that a federally mandated testing regimen is something we ought to continue,” he said in an interview.

Although there are many members on both sides of the aisle, perhaps even majorities, who support getting rid of annual tests, there aren’t enough to override a presidential veto, Takano said.

Other Hill Democrats in statements praised Duncan’s focus on civil rights and achievement gaps.

Duncan said the administration will in its budget request call for additional money to be spent on K-12 education, with $1 billion of the proposed $2.7 billion going to Title I funds, which go to low-income schools, and called on Congress to include expanded federal supports for preschool programs in the rewrite.

Shot at GOP

Duncan also took direct aim at congressional Republicans, saying that if public statements and news accounts are any guide, he is “deeply concerned about where a Republican-only ESEA reauthorization might be headed.”

Past Republican reauthorization proposals have eliminated the current accountability system, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, in favor of letting states design their own accountability systems and interventions for schools that aren’t hitting the mark.

Republicans also have advocated block grants to states for most existing federal K-12 education funds, most of which are directed at specific groups like children from low-income families, the homeless and Native American children.

Such ideas are anathema to Democrats, teachers’ unions, civil rights groups and others, who see targeted funds as necessary to combat continuing educational equity issues.

“I believe we may have fundamental differences with congressional Republicans” on the role of the federal government in assuring educational equality, Duncan said.

Republicans have always stood for accountability and not wasting taxpayer dollars, Duncan said. Backing away from that in education is “not a Republican idea,” he added during a press conference after the speech.

Failing to maintain a federal role in school accountability will turn back progress made at schools, in student achievement and graduation rates, by 15 years, Duncan said.

“The moral and economic consequences of turning back the clock are simply unacceptable,” he added.

Duncan did highlight some areas of support, like expanding high-performing charter schools, and said he is “absolutely committed to continuing to work together.”

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