The President George W. Bush-era education law dictates that states test students in reading and math in grades three to eight every year and again in high school. The results are used to judge whether schools are showing growth, and if not, they face consequences.
Many educators and parents have complained that the law led to teaching to the test and too much test preparation, but supporters of the mandate such as civil rights and business groups said it's a critical way to ensure that historically underserved groups of students are learning before it's too late to help them.
Complicating the issue, districts and states have required additional tests — some to chart how students are doing to prepare for the federally mandated ones.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, maintains he's open to discussion on the issue as he seeks to get a bill to the Senate floor by late February. He said he hears from governors and school superintendents who say if the government did not dictate policy, then it would be difficult for them to do it but he's also concerned about the federal government getting in the way.
"Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?" Alexander said.
Alexander has released a proposal with two options. One would keep the testing mandate as it is. The other would allow states to decide what to do on testing. Both approaches would require annual reporting of student achievement broken down by smaller groups.
Other senators on the panel such as Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, also expressed concern with the federal mandate, suggesting they are grappling with the issue. Collins noted that a commission in Maine a decade ago recommended allowing states to do the standardized testing just once each in elementary, middle and high school, and she says that approach "intrigues me."
Since 2012, President Barack Obama has allowed states to get a waiver from some of the more stringent requirements of No Child Left Behind. The administration, however, has steadfastly supported the annual testing requirement — as does Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee's ranking Democrat.
"While we carefully consider changes to assessments and accountability to give states and districts the flexibility they need, we can't forget our obligations to the kids who too often fall through the cracks," Murray said.
Another committee member, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the federal government gives billions to states for education, and it only makes sense that it would demand accountability for the money.
On the other side of the debate, Jia Lee, a special education teacher at Earth School in New York, testified that schools have become "increasingly data driven as opposed to student driven" with valuable time taken away from subjects such as social studies and physical education.
Stephen Lazar, a high school teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York, testified that "the federal incentives in education are wrong," and he's in years past sacrificed at least a month of classroom time moving away from discussions to teaching his students to write formulaic essays and conducting "mindless repetition of facts" to prepare them for standardized-test taking.
He suggested that Congress consider other options such as testing just a sample of students, rolling back the number of federally mandated tests or changing the accountability for schools connected to the results.
Those weren't options Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, seemed willing to consider.
He testified that districts and states have failed many historically underserved groups of students and "the federal government must continue to hold states and school districts accountable." In the absence of a strong federal role, he said he fears efforts will be rolled back.
But even supporters of the federal mandate, such as Murray, expressed concern about the amount of testing in schools.
Murray said Congress "can and should encourage states and districts to reduce redundant and low-quality tests."
The law has been due to be renewed since 2007. All sides agree it needs to be fixed, but Congress for years has failed to do so. Much of the debate in upcoming weeks will likely focus on the federal government's role in improving failing schools.
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