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.
The most significant changes in the bill have to do with scaling back the power of the federal Department of Education and handing it to the states. Annual testing will still be mandatory in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the proposal allows states to determine how the results are used. That means that some states may take advantage of the opportunity to adopt non-punitive, comprehensive forms of assessment—and there is support for alternative assessment in the Senate bill. It also means that other states may simply continue to use a barrage of narrow tests to judge the progress of students and discipline teachers and schools based on the results. Given Governor Andrew Cuomo’s fierce advocacy for high-stakes exams, for instance, it seems fair to say that the Senate will solve few of the problems motivating the New York opt-out movement.
That said, there are a few ways that the bill encourages shifts away from purely test-based school assessment. One provision, accepted as an amendment during the markup, has the NEA, the country’s largest teachers union, particularly excited. It requires states to consider indicators of student supports and resources in their accountability systems, such as access to school counselors, nurses, and arts and physical education. “We know there is an opportunity gap” for students in under-funded schools, said García. “But we’ve had nothing that says, ‘and look what those affluent kids have in terms of support services.’”
The bill won’t fix resource imbalances inherent in a system that ties school funding to the local tax base, but García doesn’t think there’s much more the federal government can do about that. “The responsibility to solve the funding inequity lies with governors and state legislators. The federal role is to provide transparency,” she said. “Where are the resources? Where’s the opportunity to learn? Which children have everything they need to learn, and which don’t?”
There is some reason to think that shifting the battleground for fights about testing and resources from the federal to the state level will boost the power of public education advocates. As NCLB critic Diane Ravitch wrote, that’s “where parents can make their voices heard.” It’s certainly a win for Hillary Clinton (who defended her vote for NCLB on Tuesday in Iowa) and any other national candidates hoping to skim the surface of the debate over testing and the privatization of public education, as City University of New York professor Ira Shor pointed out in an e-mail. “The reauthorization shows both parties seeking cover for the 2016 election cycle,” Shor wrote. “Both parties need to shelve education as a contentious issue boiling from the grass roots. This reauthorization pushes ESEA and the intense bottom-up conflict to a lower register.”
I’ve covered only broad strokes here, and the bill could still change in significant ways. (Mercedes Schneider has a detailed five-part rundown on the 601-page bill that begins here, though keep in mind it has since been marked up.) Members of the HELP committee left the most divisive issues for the floor debate, including vouchers for private schools and how federal dollars targeted at poor students are distributed. Given the current makeup of Congress and President Obama’s insistence on preserving the annual testing mandate, it’s not surprising that the revised bill signifies in a shift more in power than in philosophy. That makes state and local resistance to high-stakes testing and the corporate education reform all the more significant.