Bizarro World: I Heart Standardized Tests…And Republicans Don’t?

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Last week, the bell sounded on a new round of education policy’s biggest battle—to almost no media fanfare at all. While most of the Beltway was fulminating over leaving tar sands behind in Canada and American leaders left out of the Charlie Hebdo protests in Paris, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his draft bill to roll back large sections of No Child Left Behind.

This is as it should be, I suppose. NCLB was due for reauthorization in 2007. Efforts to update the law since then have repeatedly fallen flat. Given the current political landscape and dynamics, this effort is extremely likely to follow in failure. While Alexander gave a floor speech last week promising a collaborative legislative process, Democratic Senate staffers say that they’re still waiting to see evidence that he’s serious. One told me, “[Alexander] painted a rosier picture of the process than we’ve been experiencing firsthand…We saw the draft bill the day before the public saw it.”

So again: why should anyone care?

This round of NCLB deserves at least a modicum of attention because it illustrates the bizarro nature of education policy debates. Specifically, the part of NCLB getting the most attention from Alexander and his critics is debatably the part that works the best: Its requirement that districts give annual assessments in math and reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been an NCLB cynic more or less from day one (January 2002). Before it was cool, even. As a young lefty living amidst New England liberals at the time, I thought that the law would be too punitive and too prescriptive to work. And these talking-points-infused intuitions become convictions when Congress didn’t fully fund the law.

While I am no longer so young, I still think that analysis is basically right. Paradoxically, NCLB manages to be too prescriptive and too weak. Department of Education to make states make districts make schools make teachers do a variety of things—often without enough money to make the whole system of levers meaningful or helpful. In other words: While the law dramatically increased the federal role in education priority-setting, it left most of the work up to state and district bureaucracies with limited capacity to follow through.

So yes, NCLB is deeply flawed. Alexander’s bill surveys the situation and more or less surrenders. Specifically, it eliminates most of NCLB’s mechanisms for accountability and some of its transparency. It offers states many millions of federal dollars…so long as they provide Washington with various “assurances” that they’ll use it responsibly to support underserved students. For example, it erases all requirements that states hold school districts responsible if their English language learners are being chronically left behind.

Your response to those moves will vary with your ideological commitments. I happen to think they’re bad ideas, and that NCLB should be improved by increasing federal support for educational equity—not by trusting states to take it upon themselves to step up.

But Alexander’s draft makes another change that’s less defensible. Specifically, it includes an option that would allow states to abandon annual assessments (between 3rd and 8th grade). To put it politely, that’s bonkers—even if there are political points to be made from the country’s recent spike of opposition to tests. Most liberals and some conservatives in ed policy agree that NCLB’s annual assessments are the one part the law gets right. In response to Alexander’s suggestion, a wide array of civil rights groups quickly released a statement supporting annual tests.

Sure: tests aren’t fun. Especially standardized ones. And yes, there are reasons to take a measured approach to how we think about them and what we use them for. But in a country that has relatively piecemeal data on its schools and students, we need reliable benchmarks for measuring how we’re doing.

We need data to guide our instructional choices and our policymaking, even if those data are imperfect. Data from those NCLB-mandated assessments illuminated enormous racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in American schools. Eliminating them now would be akin to refusing to take regular blood tests after seeing a few rounds of worrying cholesterol counts. Conservatives ought to know that standardized, nationally-comparable achievement data is key for ensuring that taxpayer money is being spent well. But bring it up now, in the context of Alexander’s bill, and they call it “playing the race card.”

There you go: that’s the state of education policy debates today. We’re seven years late on fixing our core federal K–12 education law, and we’re arguing over one of the only parts that’s working. Bring on 2016. It can’t possibly get worse, right?

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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