POLITICS
01/12/2015 09:45 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

No Child Left Behind Rewrite Should Limit Standardized Testing, Duncan Says

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

After years of dancing around Congress to help states evade the No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration thinks it's time to go back to the legislative drawing board.

No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era school accountability law, must be rewritten, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech Monday. And despite an ever-growing chorus against required standardized testing, such tests must remain mandatory, Duncan said, because "parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year."

But, as Duncan stated last summer, the law must "ensure that the tests -- and time spent in preparation for them -- don’t take excessive time away from actual classroom instruction." So the administration is calling for limits on the time that school systems spend on standardized testing and test preparation.

The speech comes as Congress renews its bid to rewrite the sweeping federal education law. It also comes at a moment when sentiments against standardized testing have reached a fever pitch. In recent months, teachers, parents and advocates from both sides of the political aisle have voiced concerns in light of new tests associated with the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of teacher evaluations based on those scores.

NCLB, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, mandated the annual standardized testing of public school students in reading and math in some grades, and it doled out consequences based on those test results.

Since then, while schools have made progress by showing increased minority test scores and posting the highest-ever high school graduation rates, Duncan said, "we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we are yet doing justice by all of our young people."

The United States is on a precipice, Duncan said, and Congress faces a choice. "One path continues to move us towards that life-transforming promise of equity," he said. "The other walks away from it."

While many have lauded NCLB for exposing the differences in educational attainment between racial and socioeconomic groups, even its biggest cheerleaders have come to criticize the law for using blunt metrics to measure student achievement.

In his Monday speech at a Washington, D.C., public school, Duncan addressed NCLB's perceived shortcomings: its crude metrics, the focus it allegedly shifted from other subjects by testing reading and math, and the morale-dampening effect the law is said to have had on teachers. "Arts and history, foreign languages, financial literacy, physical education, and after-school enrichment are as important as advanced math and science classes. Those are essentials, not luxuries," Duncan said. "Teachers and principals deserve to be paid in a way that reflects the importance of the work they do."

Duncan timed his speech to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the speech in which Lyndon B. Johnson called for "full educational opportunity as our first national goal." That speech led to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a civil rights law that was later retooled and rebranded as NCLB. But the law, Duncan said, has become "tired and prescriptive."

"No Child Left Behind created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to reward success," Duncan said. "We need to do exactly the opposite."

Pushing a legislative fix for NCLB is a new tactic for the federal government, at least since the turn of the decade. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned in part on rewriting NCLB, and when he reached the White House, he gave Congress a 2011 deadline for the task. NCLB expired in 2007, and despite a few fits and starts -- and a Republican bill passed by the House of Representatives -- it has not been renewed, though it still remains in effect.

So the administration used executive action to help states get out from under the law. It allowed states to request waivers from the law's strictest facets, in exchange for agreeing to implement several Obama-favored education reforms, such as test-based teacher evaluations, revamped systems for holding schools accountable and the use of common educational standards.

Though the administration stated that rewriting the law itself would be optimal, it had all but given up on hopes of a bipartisan overhaul, much to the chagrin of some members of Congress. So Duncan's speech represents a sea change in administration policy toward federal education law.

Duncan's prescriptions for a new NCLB include several perennial administration favorites: improved access to "high-quality preschool," better support for low-income schools, "genuinely helpful" teacher evaluation systems that "take into account student learning growth," and high standards.

In terms of reducing the burden of testing, "we will work with Congress to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests they are giving and eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests," Duncan said. "We’ll urge Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and district-wide standardized testing, and notify parents if they exceed those limits."

Duncan also addressed politicians who want to end testing entirely. "I’m deeply concerned about where some Republicans may be headed on ESEA," he said of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. "Will we work together to ensure that every single child has access to high expectations for learning that will engage and challenge and prepare him or her for success in college, careers and life? Or is that optional?"

He was likely addressing Republicans such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the former secretary of education who assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee this month.

"Of course we should be asking the question: Are there too many tests? Every teacher and parent is asking that question, and if there’s going to be a requirement for 17 tests in reading, math and science, we need to make sure that’s justified," Alexander said in a statement to The Huffington Post. He added, "Secretary Duncan's recommendations are welcome."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher who just became the HELP Committee's ranking member, said she is pleased about Duncan's foray into the legislative process. "I am very glad that Secretary Duncan is so focused on reforming this broken law in a way that works for our students and makes sure no child falls through the cracks," said Murray, who was briefed on the speech in advance. "I am looking forward to working with him, Chairman Alexander, and all our colleagues on a truly bipartisan bill to get this done."

Parts of the speech were leaked to the press in the days leading up to Duncan's announcement, giving interest groups and advocates intent on making their mark on any revision a chance to promulgate their perspectives over the weekend.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said, "It is time to return to the law's moral and legal roots as a vehicle to ensure civil rights," according to a statement. She listed "the fixation on high-stakes tests that has eclipsed all other learning and accountability measures" among the factors that have "undermined that goal."

A coalition of civil rights groups, organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, sent out a long list of NCLB principles, such as the adoption of "college and career-ready state standards," "access to early childhood education" and "annual, statewide assessments."

The Council of Chief State School Officers similarly called for regular standardized testing in grades 3-8 and high school in the already-mandated subjects, as well as testing in science at least three times between third grade and the end of high school.

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