12/23/2014 09:43 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Getting SMART About Education

Quality public education is key to building strong, vibrant communities and giving our children a foundation to grow into productive, well-rounded adults. As a member of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I know how important it is to talk with students, teachers, and parents across Northwest Oregon about the challenges and opportunities in our schools.

Recently I completed my Congresswoman in the Classroom tour, visiting at least one school in each of the 25 school districts I represent. I toured urban and rural schools and large and small districts across our region. Some of the schools have a high number of students who are food insecure; others have too many homeless students. Some schools are in desperate need of capital improvements and continue to defer needed maintenance.

But despite those and other challenges, I found that great things are happening in every one of the schools I visited. Many students are gaining valuable hands-on experience in woodworking and forestry programs; some have a fabrication lab where they are creating digital models. Some schools have students learn on tablets so teachers receive real-time feedback. Many schools offer robotics teams; others focus on integrating the arts in STEM learning.

With all of this hard work to deliver quality education and opportunities to our students, we shouldn't be burdening schools with duplicative or unnecessary standardized tests. During my tour I heard from students and teachers who are concerned and frustrated by the number of standardized exams in our schools today and the time it takes to prepare students for them.

High-quality, well-timed assessments provide valuable information to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. That information can help guide instruction and improve learning. Reliable exams can serve as a tool for monitoring students' progress and a way to help find out if students are slipping through the cracks. But over the past several years, students and teachers have had to devote too much time to mandatory assessments that don't clearly contribute to teaching and learning.

Educators are not given sufficient resources and support to collaborate with colleagues and make good use of meaningful assessment data. Requiring students and educators to spend time preparing for and taking tests of little value has contributed to a more stressful environment and diverted energy away from authentic learning opportunities.

To address undue testing in America's classrooms, I introduced the bipartisan Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely (SMART) Act. This legislation will encourage, but not require, states and districts to audit their assessments and eliminate duplicative or useless tests, leaving a streamlined system with more valuable classroom time for learning. It will also help states and districts support teachers by speeding the delivery of assessment results and offering professional training.

Additionally, the SMART Act will help states and districts administer high-quality exams aligned with college- and career-ready standards. The transition to rigorous standards is a lot of work, and my bill will help states make sure that exams are tied to what students are studying. This will curb test preparation and testing that's disconnected from learning standards.

Simply put, we don't need more tests; we need better tests. The SMART Act a practical step toward this goal, and it keeps control in the hands of states and school districts so they can create assessment systems that work for their communities.

In drafting this legislation, I worked with diverse stakeholders. The SMART Act has earned the support of the National Education Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the Center for American Progress.

In the coming months Congress will be overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act. In that process, Congress should address and remove punitive "accountability" requirements that fuel anxiety in schools, discourage creative learning opportunities, and hinder exposure to a broad curriculum. Now is the time to explore ideas like the SMART Act that will help educators do more with fewer and better tests.

Assessments should strengthen teaching and learning. Too often, however, test scores have become the focus of our students' education. This needs to change, and making assessments better and more useful for educators, students, and families will be one of my top priorities when Congress reconvenes in January.