cartoon credit Susan Ohanian
cartoon credit Susan Ohanian

Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Education Committee (HELP), is determined to get a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed this session, possibly by March of this year. He is floating a discussion draft of what the HELP Committee is considering and calling for comments by February 2, 2015.  Here’s what you need to know.

You must set aside the fact that education was not meant to be a federal issue as it is not covered by the terms of Article X of the US Constitution. They ignored that rule in 1965 when they passed the first ESEA. They have been doubling down ever since and made a royal mess of things with NCLB. But if your only comment to the committee is that they should do nothing because they have no authority to touch education, your comments will be put at the back of the line.

The current focus is on two options for Accountability. Option one begins on page 16 of this discussion draft.   The key difference between the two options is how they address the mandated annual standardized high stakes testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school currently called for in NCLB. Option 1 gives local educational agencies power to determine whether it wants students to take annual standardized tests for high stakes determinations. Option 2 calls for the continuation of the current assessment schedule. Below is my brief summary of the differences in the discussion draft options. (More time is necessary to identify all the issues with the discussion draft of the ESEA reauthorization.)

Option 1  – The state, in consultation with the Local Education Agent (local school districts) shall determine an accountability plan that includes assessments for math, reading, writing and science. Such assessments are to be aligned with “challenging” state standards. Gone is the language of college and career ready standards.  Assessments must have validity and reliability (which SBAC does not have), be administered to all students (with modifications for children covered by IDEA.) LEA’s may choose to offer such assessments in other languages for ELL students if the believe such alternatives would offer more accurate assessment of their abilities. It still requires that individual student performance data be made available to loosely defined “other school leaders.”  Student academic data must be comparable only within the state (though there is nothing to prohibit unofficial alignment of inter-state data systems.)

Other subjects not listed above must be tested at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12 through a statewide assessment system that MAY include: performance-based academic assessments of all students that may be used in a competency-based education model that emphasizes mastery of standards and aligned competencies and, formative assessments of all students that may be used to inform teaching and learning.

Option 2 – Has many of the same features of Option 1, but is much more heavily driven by the state which shall make most of the determinations about testing and shall even be required to design assessments in languages other than English after determining, by LEA report, what other languages are spoken by students in the state. LEA’s will also administer English language proficiency tests to determine if students are learning enough English to be required to take the normal state assessments. This option does graciously allow LEA’s to administer their own assessments, provided they obtain approval from the state to do so.

For now it appears that standardized testing will continue in the new ESEA. What is on the table is how much gravitas is given to the results of such tests. The American Federation of Teachers wants “grade span” testing in which students continue to be tested as NCLB mandates but the results are only high stakes once in elementary, once in middle school and one in high school.

Carol Burris, who has become an outspoken principal against Common Core and the mandated high stakes testing, wrote a response to the Committee in the Washington Post.  She said,

When school systems are given external goals with punitive consequences, they will inevitably use strategies that seek to accomplish the goal, even though some of the effects are not in the best interest of students. When the focus is on math and ELA scores, and the school has high-needs students with low scores, you can bet your bottom dollar that music, art, science and social studies instruction will be reduced or  abandoned. Test prep works — and a curriculum can be (and often is) designed to teach to the test. The more difficult the test is, the more intense the narrow preparation…

Standardized tests are designed to sort students.  Make no mistake: that sorting function of the accountability tests has a disparate, negative impact on students of color and students of poverty — the very students President Lyndon Johnson hoped to assist with the1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version. Low scores from accountability tests are used to determine who is left back, disproportionately affecting students of color and poverty. Decades of research show that grade retention doesn’t work and actually increases the chances of students dropping out. State accountability scores are used to determine who gets into enrichment programs and selective schools in urban choice programs — again disadvantaging the students the act was designed to help.

Alexander says this is the culmination of 6 years of work on fixing NCLB. A series of hearings will be held to develop a bill that he would like to hear on the Senate floor in the first quarter of 2015. The first of those hearings happens this Wednesday January 21st. If you want to provide your comments to the Committee, you can send them to


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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