NCLB Accountability is Dead; Long Live ESEA Testing

It’s fascinating—and telling—how rapidly the zillion issues tucked away in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been distilled down to arguments about testing.

There’s been almost no discussion, at least in places where I look, about Titles II through X of the 2002 (NCLB) version, and most of Title I’s myriad provisions seem also to have been set aside while people argue over the future of annual testing.

The new House bill would retain that requirement, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, though declaring himself open-minded on the subject, seems to be moving closer toward keeping it.

Testing is of course controversial in its own right. Many people think there’s too much of it and that it’s getting in the way of teaching and learning. I’ve come to view annual testing of kids in reading and math, and the disaggregating and public reporting of their performance at the school (and district) level, as the single best feature of NCLB and the one that most needs preserving. Indeed, I wish the testing requirement extended below third grade and above eighth, and that it was as demanding for science and history as for reading and math. That, I believe, would do a world of good for K–12 education.

But I also know that’s lunacy. Nobody is about to expand the testing requirement. The real-world argument is whether to preserve what’s already there. But the reason it’s controversial is not because of parental upset with the testing burden inflicted on their kids by ESEA. (Admittedly, they may not know the difference, but all the available data shows that the overwhelming majority of what is sometimes an unreasonable testing burden is imposed by states and districts.) It’s because federally mandated testing is a sort of gateway drug that can lead to two practices that are intensely—and understandably—contentious, though these controversies have much more to do with educators than with parents and kids.

The benign and supportive version of testing (dare I compare it with the medical use of marijuana?) is to inform parents, voters, taxpayers, and educators about the performance of their kids and schools, then let them make their own decisions as to whether anything needs to be done. One might applaud a school’s outstanding performance. One might move one’s child to another school—or move one’s home to another town. One might vote for different school board members or demand that the superintendent be fired or that the state take schools away from the district. But that’s up to individual, local, and state decisions. Under this scenario—which is where I suspect Congress will end up—nobody in Washington is prescribing that anything in particular be done with the test results beyond making them public.

Where testing gets hard-core is where those results get used for “high-stakes” consequences for schools and districts—we call this “accountability”—and for evaluating teachers. Both practices are seriously controversial among educators, and understandably so. That doesn’t make them wrong. Indeed, I favor both, so long as they’re done carefully and reasonably. But requiring these practices from Washington and prescribing how they must be done—between the original NCLB and Secretary Duncan’s Title I waiver requirements both have been forced upon states—is not working at all well and is hated by millions of educators and conservatives, albeit for different reasons.

Once upon a time, I pointed out (surely the most-quoted thing I’ve ever written) that “national testing” was a political non-starter because Democrats don’t like testing and Republicans don’t like “national.”

Today, it’s more accurate to say that educators are fine with national but don’t like testing when it’s used for results-based accountability, and conservatives are all for accountability (and the test scores that make it possible) but don’t want anything mandated by Washington.

An unusual alliance, to be sure, but it will likely be the death knell of NCLB (and waiver) provisions that tie testing to accountability, whether for schools or for educators. (It also makes for a lousy quote that I expect no one to repeat.)

So be it. The federal version has backfired in so many ways that it’s doing more harm than good. Attaching “adequate yearly progress” to how many kids have cleared the “proficiency” bar, rather than also considering student growth, has had all manner of perverse consequences. One hundred percent proficiency was well intended but ridiculous. And building test-score-based student achievement into teacher evaluations, while (in my view) legitimate for some teachers, has led to crazy arrangements for many teachers whose performance cannot be properly linked to reading and math scores in grades 3–8.

And then there’s all the clumsy, punitive overreaching by Uncle Sam, some of it inflicted (in a bipartisan way) by Congress, but much of it added by the executive branch (under both Republican and Democratic administrations).

Add it up and, despite frantic efforts by a number of groups to preserve some sort of federal accountability mandates in the next ESEA cycle, I think these should go away and almost surely will.

Which places the accountability ball back in the states’ court, where it properly belongs. We know they won’t all turn out to be good ball handlers. Some will fumble. That’s reality, but I don’t think they’ll fumble any worse than Uncle Sam. Moreover, if ESEA is only going to get reauthorized every fourteen years or so, the fumblers will have plenty of time to improve their ball-handling skills. And, of course, those who are doing a good job of school and educator accountability today will come under intense pressure to ease off. They’ll no longer be able to say, “The feds made us do it.” They’ll have to take responsibility themselves.

That’s as it should be.

Bottom line: The most helpful thing Washington can do is hang onto the testing requirement that at least yields the data that state and local policy makers need to do their own jobs well and enables them to compare their results with others. The least helpful thing Washington can do is require them to take specific actions based on those data.

Meanwhere, where is the usual—and expected—palaver about bilingual education, impact aid, native Alaskans, and all the rest of ESEA?

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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