Public school students in New York State are supposed to be taking standardized tests this week, but more than 100,000 have been absent. In protest of mandatory high-stakes testing, parents are pulling their children from the classroom, and in numbers high enough to invalidate the results. More than 80 percent of students in the Comsewogue School District in Long Island have refused to take the test; 70 percent of students at the West Seneca School District near Buffalo opted out; several districts in the Hudson Valley reported that at least a quarter of their students did not show up.
Meanwhile, in the capital, members of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions have spent the week debating a proposal to replace No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that sanctified the use of standardized tests to evaluate and punish teachers and schools. On Thursday afternoon they voted unanimously to send a new bill drafted by Washington Democrat Patty Murray and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander to the floor. Congress failed to revise NCLB as expected in 2007, and since then the Obama administration has reinforced much of its underlying ideology via programs like Race to the Top. This year lawmakers are committed to replacing the law (which is a version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed 50 years ago by President Johnson). It’s a rare opportunity for the parents, teachers, and public-education advocates who are desperate for relief from the high-stakes testing regime.
The Senate bill has a new name—the Every Child Achieves Act—but whether it drives a stake through the heart of NCLB is a matter of debate. So far many NCLB critics, including major teachers unions, are voicing cautious optimism about new version. “We’re very, very pleased,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, after the first day of markup. “We still have a long way to go, but from where we started with ‘No Child Left Untested’…for the first time in thirteen long years we’re seeing hope.” Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers called the committee vote “a big deal, an important step forward and the most positive development we’ve seen in public education policy in years—because of both its content and the committee’s very intentional move to leave partisanship at the door.”
But other public education advocates say that the proposal is “haunted by the ghosts” of the failed law; that while it does make it more difficult for the federal government itself to penalize schools, it doesn’t necessarily do away with test-based accountability. Nor will it stop the diversion of public funds to privatized charters. Instead, it provides for three new grant programs to support charter schools, without implementing strong measures to increase transparency and accountability at those institutions.