NCLB: Groups Urge Curtailing of Standardized Tests; Duncan Unmoved

Even as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is pushing to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB), he's standing against calls to curtail standardized testing in this country. Duncan made his remarks at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. during a speech on the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

A rewrite of the education law, as envisioned by Duncan, would grant more flexibility to states to develop "rigorous and comprehensive" plans that take advantage of innovations for closing the achievements gaps of their students, improving instruction and advancing student outcomes. The new law would also include broader access to "high-quality preschool" and steer more federal dollars to schools serving "the most vulnerable children."

NCLB, introduced during George W. Bush's administration, calls for schools to show annual growth in student reading and math skills. Schools that fail to show progress face consequences. The initial stated goal was to ensure that all students received the instructional attention and resources they needed no matter what barriers to learning they faced. However, the execution of NCLB led to accusations that educators were "teaching to the test" and that proficiency mandates were unrealistic.

According to Duncan, the law is long overdue for update. But that doesn't include stepping away from annual statewide testing such as the new online standardized tests developed to measure success against Common Core State Standards.

"All students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher's classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school," Duncan said. At the same time, he acknowledged that measuring the progress students make through testing must not take "excessive time away from actual classroom instruction. Great teaching, and not test prep, is always what best engages students and what leads to higher achievement."

He added that his department would work with Congress "to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests they are giving and eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests and provide support for them to do exactly that." That includes asking states to set limits on the amount of time schools spend on state and district standardized testing.

To help in that effort, Duncan noted, President Obama's budget would request funding to help improve the quality of tests and "get rid of those that are unnecessary."

Duncan also touched on the topic of teacher evaluation, stating that educators deserved fair and "genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that identify excellence and take into account student learning growth." He added that assessments should be only "one indicator" for evaluating teachers. He called for Congress to amend ESEA to "modernize" the profession of teaching by addressing improved preparation, support, resources and pay.

"I believe we can work together — Democrats and Republicans — to move beyond the tired, prescriptive No Child Left Behind law," Duncan said. "I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support — more money — than they receive today. A law that recognizes that no family should be denied preschool for their children. 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. A law that says that educational opportunity isn't an option, it's a civil right."

Duncan added that the budget from the White House would include $2.7 billion for increased spending on ESEA programs.

The comments came as a Republican-led Congress is reviewing its own options for the renewal of ESEA. Rep. John Kline, who heads up the House Education Committee, predicted that lawmakers would be dumping NCLB and replacing it with a system that they perceive as giving states much more control.

Duncan stated that backing away from an emphasis on standards that show how much progress students are making or data-backed decision-making would be a "terrible, terrible mistake." "For a Republican party that has fought hard against wasting money, and has pushed for a focus on results for taxpayers, turning back the clock would be truly hypocritical. This country can't afford to replace 'the fierce urgency of now' with the soft bigotry of 'It's somehow optional.'"

Forty-three states have received waivers that eliminated some requirements of NCLB but kept in place the need for standardized testing in order to continue receiving federal education dollars. Although some critics have suggested that the standardized testing stipulation has forced states to remain in the PARCC and Smarter Balanced online assessment consortiums against their wishes, the waivers don't require a state to adopt the Common Core standards at all. They do need to submit evidence that they will offer "high quality assessments based on college- and career-ready standards," which may or may not be developed through one of the consortiums.

Although Duncan has garnered support for his stance on NCLB and state standards from the Council of Chief State School Officers, among other organizations, NCLB detractors — especially teachers' unions — see Duncan's position regarding standardized testing as misguided.

"We must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas. Parents and educators know that the one-size-fits-all annual federal testing structure has not worked. We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish 'teaching to the test,' expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students. We must give states and districts the flexibility to use assessments they feel are best for identifying achievement gaps, rather than forcing them to live with a one-size-fits-all approach that often ignores high needs children," said National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten expressed similar sentiments, calling Duncan's remarks "worrisome." "We are glad the secretary has acknowledged that 'there are too many tests that take up too much time' and that 'we need to take action to support a better balance.' However, 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," she said in a statement. "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. Even in the District of Columbia, where the secretary spoke from today, the school district has pulled back from the consequential nature of these tests."

Duncan refused to equivocate. "Let me be clear: if we walk away from responsibility as a country - if we make our national education responsibilities optional — we would turn back the clock on educational progress 15 years or more," he said. "Back to the days when, in too many places, the buck stopped nowhere for student learning. Back to the days when expectations for how much a student should learn often depended on what side of town he or she lived on. Back to the days when the only factor that never seemed to matter in teacher evaluation was if students were actually learning; and when parents and teachers had little information on how much progress students were making from year-to-year. Back to the days when achievement gaps for black and Hispanic 4th-graders were 30 to 40 percent larger. When the high school graduation rate for the nation was stagnating. When high school dropout rates were almost twice as high for African-Americans, and more than twice as high for Hispanic young people. The moral and economic consequences of turning back the clock are simply unacceptable."