Tag Archives: annual testing

A Wonky But Important Argument for Annual Statewide Testing

In Saturday’s New York Times, I wrote a defense of annual statewide testing in reading and math. In the piece, I used data from the District of Columbia to illustrate that withdrawing from annual statewide testing would make it nearly impossible to hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students. That’s a problem, because NCLB’s emphasis on historically disadvantaged groups forced schools to pay attention to these groups and led to real achievement gains. Today, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have never been higher.

To see how a move away from annual testing would affect subgroup accountability in other cities, I pulled data from Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia. The results confirm that a move away from annual testing would leave many subgroups and more than 1 million students functionally “invisible” to state accountability systems.  Continue reading

Let’s Make a Deal: The ESEA Compromise Congress Should Make

Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.

Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.

Further bolstering the mood? The annual testing plot-twist nobody everybody saw coming appears to be a mere diversion to create fresh conflict between the major players, instead of recycling storylines from past seasons (see: the 112th Congress “Should teacher evaluations be mandated?” and the 113th “Should Title I funding be portable?”). In predictable fashion, the annual testing drama seems likely to be resolved mid-season. There are just too many key political players (e.g. Kline, Murray, Boehner, Duncan), civil rights organizations, business groups, and state leaders defending annual testing for Alexander to open the grade-span testing floodgates.

Thus, old conflicts are set to re-emerge in the coming episodes of the reauthorization drama. And none looms larger than “What is the appropriate federal role?” It’s the “We were on a break!” conflict driving the entire ESEA reauthorization plot. Continue reading

What’s Behind Door #3? The Giant Local Testing Loophole in Alexander’s ESEA Proposal

There’s been no shortage of column inches devoted to testing and the “choose your own adventure” approach in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s draft to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And annual testing will likely dominate the discussion at the first Senate hearing on reauthorization today, even though many (including key witnesses, like Brookings’ Marty West) have already shown why backing away from annual testing is a horrible plan.

But annual testing is only half the story. That’s because Alexander’s bill doesn’t just offer two statewide testing options for policymakers to fight about. It also offers a separate testing option for districts on top of the state choices. And although education wonks are up-in-arms over the merits of door #1 vs. door #2 for states, most have, unfortunately, ignored the giant local testing loophole that is behind door #3.

Through it, districts could opt-out of statewide testing and use their own tests instead, regardless of whether Congress chooses door #1 or door #2. But the real kicker is that this loophole isn’t actually new at all. Alexander’s draft bill just makes it far easier for districts to take advantage of–and abuse–existing flexibility. 

Districts would only need state approval that their local assessments meet the same federal requirements with which state tests comply. And given the increasing number of districts pushing back on state testing, door #3 would be an irresistible option for many, even as it undermines the comparability of data between schools for evaluation and accountability; states’ abilities to provide technical assistance, support, and professional development to districts; and state investments in new assessment systems aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

Continue reading

My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU

What State Policy Makers Can (and Should) Glean from the Largely Irrelevant ESEA Reauthorization Debate

These cold January days are shaping up to be heady times in federal education policy with Secretary Arne Duncan previewing the administration’s priorities for ESEA reauthorization in a speech this week and Congressional hearings set to begin. From conversation inside the beltway you’d never know that across the country, nearly every state legislature is gearing up to address many of the issues in focus in those national debates in real time. While the powers that be at the federal level will be debating annual versus grade-span testing, universal pre-k, and whether the federal government should increase its share of the total expenditure of public education by about one-half of one percent, state leaders will be acting on fundamental public education policies.

So how does this federal policy debate inform state-level work in the near term? It doesn’t really. Don’t get me wrong, federal education policy is important—clearly NCLB significantly affected how states, districts, and schools operate in the decade plus since its enactment. But under any realistic outcome scenario of the current reauthorization debate, federal requirements on states won’t increase much, if any. It’s much more likely that they’ll decrease. Given that, state policy makers are free to act in response to their own political contexts with low risk of winding up crosswise with a new federal mandate.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Number of state legislatures convening between the beginning and end of January: 45
  • Number of states in the middle of implementing the rigorous, new Common Core state standards: 44
  • Number of states in the middle of revisiting, reviewing, and otherwise “formally” arguing about those standards: 18
  • Number of states rolling out new assessment regimes over the next two years: 40
  • Number of states at some stage of litigation regarding school finance: 15.

To paraphrase Bull Durham, they’re dealing with a lot of {stuff}.  So, what about the national debate is instructive for state leaders now?

Annual testing is most likely here to stay. Secretary Duncan doubled down on it in his speech. And though the frequency of testing will be a central point of conflict between Congressional and Executive leadership, states won’t benefit from spending time and political capital pushing hard on this issue. Changing assessment regimes is expensive and time-consuming. Plus, there are compelling policy reasons to stick with the current annual system.

There’s not going to be a windfall of new federal money. Secretary Duncan’s $2.7 billion is almost certainly the high side in terms of possible new federal money for education. While it’s a big number by itself, in the context of total public education spending, not so much. He referenced about $1 billion for Title I, which leaves the rest for other priorities of the administration. So if this funding materializes at all, the bulk of it will most likely go to individual states with policy agendas that align with those priorities. If your state is ready to move toward universal pre-k and the like, your ears should perk up. Those with big money problems will need to do that work themselves (and they should).

States are going to stay in the driver’s seat with regard to standards and accountability—as they have been under waivers. And with great power, comes….you know. The bottom line on standards is that the context under which the Common Core standards were developed hasn’t changed. Students need to be ready for post-secondary training (really ready without remediation), and they increasingly need to compete with graduates all over the world. They are behind the 8-ball on both. Reducing the rigor of the standards perpetuates the myth that something less is good enough. So if state and local politics require that some states back away from the Common Core brand to get buy-in, then so be it. But don’t lower the standards. It sells students short. The policy lever to adjust here is on the accountability side with careful consideration about how to support transition and how best to measure and fairly judge the progress of students and schools.

With so much in public education in transition, these are certainly not the only important issues on which state policy makers will engage over the coming months. They are simply the ones most closely tied to the current federal debate. As a state legislative staff alumna, I wish my fellow staties the best of luck with all the heavy lifting.