Advocacy Update: ESEA Reauthorization Debate Heats Up

By Kelly D. Pollitt
January 2015, Volumbe 38, Issue 5

Congressional leaders and their staffs are working at a furious pace to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), during the beginning of 2015. The process began earlier this month in the Senate with the release of a “discussion draft” bill by the Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill was used to focus debate during the HELP Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability hearing that occurred this week—the first in a series of three that will be held over the coming weeks.

The fast-paced committee process is setting up a much larger debate and amendment process on the Senate floor this spring, and the House is gearing up to pass its bill as well. Chairman John Kline (R-MN) of the House Education and the Workforce Committee is expected to bring up and reintroduce H.R. 5, the “Student Success Act,” which passed the House in the last session of Congress. NAESP did not support H.R. 5; read NAESP’s comments on the bill here.

The Issues

This week’s Senate hearing provided a glimpse into the issues that members of Congress are grappling with in regards to reducing testing in schools, even while maintaining strong accountability at the state level. Several witnesses provided testimony on both sides of the issue and engaged with the committee members as they consider potential options for legislation. Committee proceedings and witness testimony can be found here.

At issue are federal testing requirements and whether the law should shift to “grade-span” testing—as opposed to annual testing—to alleviate the burden on states and schools. Current law under NCLB requires annual assessments of students in grades 3-5 and once in high school in English language arts and mathematics, which amounts to 17 annual assessments over the course of a K-12 schooling experience. On the other hand, grade-span testing would shift the schedule to testing students only once during the grade spans of 3-5 and 6-8, and once in high school. Here is the bill outlining this proposal.

Many lawmakers—including the HELP Committee Ranking Member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), civil rights and disability advocates, as well as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—cite significant concerns with shifting to grade-span testing because it would undercut existing equity efforts to hold states accountable for educating our nation’s disadvantaged students. Sen. Murray explained in her opening remarks, “Assessments help parents and communities hold schools accountable … if a school is failing students year after year, parents and communities deserve to have that information and be assured the school will get the resources it needs to improve.”

The debate on over-testing included some finger pointing at states and districts, given that federal testing requirements are estimated to amount for only about 30 percent of high-stakes test. Blame was also placed on state-run educator evaluation systems, which are tied to the achievement scores of students “in significant part” for teachers and principals. (Educator evaluation systems were created by a regulation and the U.S. Department of Education “ESEA waivers,” not by NCLB.) As a result, many states have had to administer additional state assessments in order to produce the student achievement data that is needed for educator evaluation.

The Principal’s Voice

NAESP recently issued a survey on assessments to gather principal’s perspectives to inform our advocacy and policy recommendations. So far, it is clear that principals have major concerns with over-testing and the punitive accountability system. Many principals also believe that there is room for annual assessments as long as they inform teaching and learning to measure student growth and are not tied to high stakes.

As we analyze the potential impact of grade-span and annual assessments, there is no question that the federal accountability system needs to be overhauled as it is overly punitive and dysfunctional. NAESP is pleased that congressional leaders have set an ambitious timeline for action to review troublesome areas and renew the law, and the Association hopes that the discussion draft bill provides a start to shifting federal policies to better support students in our nation’s public education system.

Please provide your comments on testing and accountability by completing this survey. As the nation’s leading advocate for elementary and middle-level principals, we will include your perspective in our advocacy on Capitol Hill to influence the direction of the largest federal education law.

Kelly D. Pollitt is Associate Executive Director for Policy, Public Affairs, and Special Projects at NAESP.

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