As the House gets set this week to pass a long-overdue revision of No Child Left Behind, President Obama is vowing to veto the new legislation if it makes it to his desk.
NCLB, President George W. Bush's signature domestic policy, aimed to drag failing schools toward "proficiency" by using annual tests with mandatory benchmarks and sanctions on schools that did not progress.
Twelve years later, those ambitious goals remain elusive, the standardized tests have become as controversial, while the law’s enforcement tools have proven unmanageable. Upwards of 40 states now have waivers from the Department of Education, exempting them from the law’s more onerous demands.
In an odd bedfellows alignment, conservative opponents of federal control have made common cause with teachers unions whose members increasingly resist being evaluated using standardized tests.
“It looks like there is pretty broad bipartisan support for a continued annual testing requirement,” said Matt Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Among the key players in Congress and the White House, no one has come out against it.”
The real debate, Chingos said, now centers on the federal role in holding schools accountable for progress, and it is here that Obama has drawn a line in the sand. He vowed on Wednesday to veto the bill, arguing that dropping federal sanctions would cut disadvantaged students adrift in lousy schools.
The GOP proposal "abdicates the historic federal role in elementary and secondary education of ensuring the educational progress of all of America's students," the White House said in a statement, "including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color."
The federal role
Even some skeptics of broad federal powers seem reconciled with a federal role in testing and interpreting results. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a strong advocate of school choice and localized control, sees federal testing as akin to the federal government's constitutional authority to standardize weights and measures.
"You want parents and voters to have transparency in how schools are doing,” Hess said. Hess believes the current system of testing in grades 3-8 and in high school should be retained. “Folks have gotten used to it, and it seems to work reasonably well.”
But goal-setting and accountability should be left to the states, Hess argues. If a given school is exposed as fatally flawed, Hess argues, the standardized tests will expose it, the press will force the issue, and there will be nowhere to hide.
“The problem with federal goal-setting is that you have people who are neither accountable nor responsible making up wish lists, turning goals into vague aspirations, and infusing the entire process with unrealism and cynicism,” Hess said.
Under the current law, states are required to test students annually in grades 3-8, and then once again in high school. Reading and math are tested each year, with science testing spaced out through the grades. Each school must break the data down by subgroups to make sure that that overall progress is not masking poor results for minority groups or English learners.
A school that failed to reach progress requirements repeatedly would first be publicly called out as a failed school, then required to pay transportation costs for students who wanted to transfer. If the school still didn’t get on track, it could be forced to restructure — becoming a charter, or being taken over by private management or the state.
And so, in 2011, the Obama administration announced, if Congress did not step in to fix the law, the Department of Education would grant waivers to states that fell short — but only if they met new criteria accountability laid out by the department, alternative ways to hold teachers and schools accountable.
By 2014, over 40 states had obtained waivers. California had its waiver denied, and Oklahoma lost its waiver when the state abandoned Common Core standards without finding an adequate replacement to demonstrate "college and career readiness," according to a letter issued by the department last August.
Last month, Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota) reintroduced legislation nearly identical to the bill that passed the House in 2013 on a party-line vote, with no Democratic support. Obama threatened to veto that bill, which would retain the NCLB testing requirements but drop the federal consequences, allowing states to interpret the results and fix problems their own way.
“The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of dictating how schools spend their money,” said Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate appears to be pursuing a much more bipartisan course, with leaders of both parties meeting regularly and voicing similar themes.
Republicans are hoping that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the committee’s ranking member, could be a key ally at forging a bipartisan reform in the Senate. Murray’s home state is one of two that recently lost its NCLB “waiver,” when the state refused to tie teacher evaluations to standardized tests, despite demands from the Department of Education.
NCLB aimed to push every public school to achieve proficiency in reading and math by 2014, and schools that fell short of “adequate yearly progress” in the years leading up to that deadline faced tough consequences.
As the ramp-up to 2014 became imminent, the problems with enforcing the law became more apparent as more and more schools lagged behind and faced the mandatory sanctions.
Washington lost its NCLB waiver when the state refused to require that teacher evaluations be tied to standardized test results. Washington is not alone. Across the country, teachers and teachers unions are insisting that testing has gone too far, is too dominant and is interrupting the real work in the classroom.
“I think Sen. Murray is being told by her constituents that the existing system of government by waiver is not sustainable,” said Mike McShane, an education research fellow at AEI. “She has strong connections with teacher unions who are upset about testing. You are not hearing teacher unions saying that we need to put that all back in.”
One of the most scathing critiques of standardized testing at the Senate hearings last month came from Steven Lazar, a high school teacher from New York who testified that every year at the beginning of May he would apologize to his students, and then launch into test preparation.
"I told my students there would be no more research, no more discussion, no more dealing with complexity, no more developing as writers with voice and style," Lazar testified. "Instead, they would repeatedly write stock, formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts so that they could be successful on the state regents exams in English and history. Every year, I sacrificed at least a month of my students’ learning, and I’m sad to say, it worked. My students always performed 10-20 percent above city averages on the exams."
McShane agrees with Hess that annual testing in grades 3-8 offers vital information. Testing will dominate the classroom less, he argues, if the tests serve to inform rather than coerce. As things stand, schools are faced with high-stakes tests at the end of the year, McShane said, and states have layered more and more tests in on their own.
The key, McShane argues, is that the federal enforcement role be cut down, allowing states and parents to interpret test scores, which in turn allows them to put them in perspective in the classroom.
“Democrats would like to see more money in the bill,” McShane said. “They might like to see something on preschool. But as far as accountability and testing go, I think huge portions of the Democratic constituency are sympathetic to what the Republicans are doing.”