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Standardized Tests and the Future of No Child Left Behind

The debate over mandated standardized testing took center stage today as the Republican-controlled 114th Congress gets ready to make its mark on education policy. At issue is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and whether the nation’s education law should include a requirement that states annually test their students.

ESEA reauthorization is long overdue. The law hasn’t been reauthorized since 2001 when it was christened No Child Left Behind, and the consequences of its most recent iteration have been called off for most states due to waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Republicans have begun work on a rewrite to ESEA, and one aspect of the draft legislation that’s getting attention from President Obama’s administration is a proposal to end federally required annual testing. The legislation would instead allow states to design their own testing schedules.

In remarks today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged that, “There are simply too many tests that take up too much time, and I know many educators and families and students are frustrated about that. We need to take action to support a better balance.”

While proposing states set limits on the amount of time devoted to tests and preparation, Duncan still reiterated his support for yearly testing.

“I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness,” Duncan said. “That means all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school.”

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said overtesting has “corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas.”

What will come of ESEA reauthorization, and, if a bill passes the Republican-controlled House and Senate, whether or not President Obama will sign it into law, remains to be seen.

ESEA in Connecticut

In the meantime, the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) is left to continue work on an application to renew the state’s waiver to No Child Left Behind/ESEA. In order to continue to receive flexibility from the law that, were it to go back into effect, would label virtually all Connecticut schools as failing, the state must submit a renewal application to the U.S. Department of Education by March 31.

According to SDE Chief Operating Officer Charlene Russell-Tucker, much of the application renewal will be updates to the state’s previous waiver, including information on how the state has followed through on the intentions spelled out in its earlier plan.

Some of the items that Russell-Tucker and other SDE officials outlined to the State Board of Education at a meeting last week as being new to this year’s waiver include the following.

  • SBAC waiver
    Connecticut received a waiver last year from the U.S. Department of Education from using SBAC test scores in educators’ evaluations, as the test was merely a pilot last year. The SDE has submitted a request for a similar waiver for 2015, and this request will also be part of the waiver application.
  • Possible change in high school testing
    The state has convened a working group to examine whether or not another exam, such as the SAT or ACT, could take the place of the SBAC for 11th graders — reducing testing requirements for this grade. If the working group reaches a decision on the matter in time, its recommendation may be part of the state’s ESEA waiver.
  • New rating system for schools
    The SDE is working on a new rating system for schools that would include multiple measures beyond standardized test scores. If it is ready and approved by the State Board of Education in time, the new rating system will also be part of the ESEA waiver.

The ESEA waiver application requires the state to seek input from teachers, students, parents, and others. The SDE plans to roll out a stakeholder engagement process this month that will include multiple avenues for feedback.

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