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 fordistricts 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.
In a speech to chief state school officers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan finally unveiled guidance for states seeking to renew their waivers from No Child Left Behind, all of which (except Illinois’) are set to expire at the end of the school year. These renewal guidelines (see the official guidance and letter to states here for the nitty-gritty details) are critical, because they are the last remaining leverage point for this administration to urge states to stay the course on some of its key priorities, from college- and career-ready standards and tests to new teacher evaluation systems that take into account students’ learning. And with Duncan and Co.’s time and capacity quickly expiring, managing the implementation of waivers is one of the few big remaining items on the administration’s to-do list.
While I could go on (and on) about the finer points of the waiver renewal guidelines, here are three big takeaways—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and what they mean for NCLB waivers moving forward (if you want a longer take, check out these recaps, with reactions from the field, from Politics K-12and Huffington Post).
The good. Unlike the last round of waivers and waiver extensions, states will be able to get flexibility for three or even four years, in some cases (something I suggested that the Department consider). While longer waivers pose risks, especially if states are making poor choices with their newfound flexibility and seeing marginal improvement in student learning, these policy risks are outweighed by how the additional time will improve the waiver process—and possibly, the chances for a reauthorization before 2019 (seventeen yearsafter NCLB’s passage), when the last of these new waivers could expire. In this light, it’s a win-win for everybody: baking in Duncan’s preferred policies well into the next administration’s tenure, providing states with the policy stability they’ve been craving, and giving a new administration some breathing room to develop their own policies and approaches toward reauthorization and flexibility. Continue reading →