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U.S. Department of Education Calls For NCLB Rewrite

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling on Congress to repeal and replace No Child Left Behind, the cornerstone federal education law, while still maintaining what he considers to be key elements – including annual testing.

The law, signed by former President George W. Bush in 2002, has been due for reauthorization since 2007. It is the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), an extensive federal statute that has funded primary and secondary education since 1965.

In a speech delivered Monday, Duncan laid out his vision for rewriting what he calls a “tired” and “prescriptive” law.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits with preschoolers in Virginia last year. (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits with preschoolers in Virginia last year. (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

“I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – more money – than they receive today,” Duncan says. “A law that recognizes the hard work educators across America are doing to support and raise expectations for students, and lifts up the profession of teaching by recognizing that teachers need better preparation, better support, and more resources.”

Duncan says a rewrite needs to emphasize the following components: 

  • Improved access to high-quality preschool,
  • An equal distribution of funds among schools to guarantee all students can access good teachers and resources like technology and safe facilities,
  • Fair teacher evaluation systems that include measures of student learning,
  • Improved preparation, support, resources and pay for teachers, and
  • More financial support for districts that “pursue bold innovations” in terms of testing.

“If we make our national education responsibilities optional, we would turn back the clock on educational progress,” Duncan said. “When so many states and districts have put in place the building blocks to sustain educational progress…reversing course would be a terrible mistake.”

Wait…What Is This Again?

The law originally meant what its name suggests: no child should be failing state tests on math, reading and science. It called for 100 percent of students to be proficient in these basic skills by 2014.

NCLB gave each state control over how it would measure proficiency by granting them the ability to write their own academic standards and standardized tests. The feds require annual progress reports showing students’ and schools’ improvement along those guidelines – meaning test scores must always be going up.

Secretary Duncan urged lawmakers to improve NCLB as early as 2011, citing evidence that he expected four out of five schools would not be able to meet their goals by the following year. Congress has yet to craft a new plan.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Education allowed each state’s educational agency to request flexibility on certain requirements of NCLB in exchange for designing their own state-specific plan.

Forty-three states currently have waivers from key aspects of the federal law, including Indiana. The USED extended the Hoosier state’s waiver late last summer, after targeting the state for not doing enough to put “college- and career-ready” standards in place following a repeal of Common Core.

What’s All The Fuss About?

A widespread complaint about the current law focuses on the mandate that all students be tested in math and reading every year from third through eighth grade.

Some parents say the tests put unnecessary added pressure on their kids, and teachers unions have generally been critical about the degree to which test scores are factored into school grades and teacher evaluations.

Duncan says he thinks the new law should retain the testing mandate, but that Congress should set limits on how much time students spend on testing.

During his speech, Duncan also announced that President Obama will request an extra $2.7 billion in his budget proposal for schools, previewing what is sure to be part of the president’s State of the Union address next week. Duncan says this extra funding would help states and districts reexamine the amount of testing they require.

Here’s how reports from Education Week recently framed the testing saga:

Mr. Duncan has recently softened his rhetoric on testing, as some state policymakers push back on new exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

“While test scores are an important part of how schools measure progress, annual statewide assessments should be only one part of a variety of measures that states and communities use to determine what students are learning,” Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for Mr. Duncan, said in an email.

Still, the secretary recently told state chiefs that keeping annual, statewide assessments is one of his “lines in the sand” for any rewrite of the current law.

What Does Everyone Else Have To Say?

Congress: According to reports out of Washington, Republicans in Congress are also pushing to rewrite the law.

Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander – newly-named chairman of the Senate education panel – is expected to roll out a bill to fix NCLB this week that would likely ditch the federal testing requirement.

Check out what the senator said to The Washington Post last week:

“Every parent, every teacher in 100,000 public schools is asking the question, ‘Are there too many tests?’ ”Alexander said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t know the answer. I’m asking the question. And the United States Senate ought to be asking that question as we think about No Child Left Behind.”

Alexander said the federal requirement appears to have created a cascading effect in states and local school districts, most of which now regularly test students during the course of the school year to make sure they are on track to succeed on the federally required exam at year’s end. And this year, as most states prepare for new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, the testing debate has gained new urgency.

Sen. Alexander has said he wants to put a bill on President Obama’s desk before the summer.

Some education organizations are advocating for the feds to let states try different forms of assessement. (Photo Credit: David Hartman/Flickr)

Some education organizations are advocating for the feds to let states try different forms of assessement. (Photo Credit: David Hartman/Flickr)

Advocacy groups: Unsurprisingly, a growing list of education-related organizations are offering their own advice about fixing the law. 

In a statement, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Secretary Duncan for acknowledging the importance of early education and equity for students, but added that she worries his focus on testing may still be too strong.

“Current federal educational policy has enshrined a focus on testing, not learning, especially high-stakes testing and the consequences and sanctions that flow from it. That’s wrong, and that’s why there is a clarion call for change,” Weingarten says. “If one test per year can cause an entire school to be shuttered or all the teachers fired, something is wrong with the way that test is being used.”

A handful of groups – most prominently the Council of Chief State School Officers – are also pushing for lawmakers to allow school corporations to experiment with new forms of testing.

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