The Testing Pendulum

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 was the apotheosis of the standards-assessments-accountability movement, which had been building for about two decades.

Some loved it, believing this latest reauthorization of the LBJ-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) finally put the spotlight on high-need kids and our nation’s ongoing inability to provide them with a great education. Advocates point to the steady closing of the achievement gap during the law’s period of influence as evidence that it was producing the results desired.

But many others viewed NCLB as the ultimate distortion of K–12 accountability. It emanated from Washington, unrealistically aspired to 100 percent proficiency, labeled too many schools “in need of improvement,” and—sin of all sins—was obsessed with assessments.

If NCLB represented the farthest point of the testing pendulum’s swing to the right, many forces beyond gravity alone are now pulling it leftward.

Congress’s inability to reauthorize the law (now about seven years late) is a clear indication that many members are uncomfortable with the law’s contours.

The “opt-out” movement, whereby parents decide to free their students from the administration of ESEA-related tests, shows that, at least to some degree, families have misgivings about assessments.

And in a growing number of states—most recently in Tennessee—legislators are moving to end their relationships with the two Common Core–aligned assessment consortia.

If the success of tactics and short-term wins are the measuring stick, the anti-testing crowd has reason to celebrate. They appear to be ascendant.

But we should keep our long-term goals in mind and judge the leftward swing of the pendulum accordingly. In other words, are kids, especially disadvantaged students, benefitting from this retreat (or “strategic retrenchment,” depending on your worldview)?

Well, there’s reason for concern.

Maryland’s Montgomery County, just outside of Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s largest school districts and has both highly affluent pockets and areas with significant at-risk populations. Joshua Starr, its superintendent, has been trying to make a national name for himself as an opponent of high-stakes tests tied to school- and teacher-level accountability provisions.

But just this weekend, the Washington Post’s editorial board scolded his administration for results showing the achievement gap is growing. Quoting a report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight, they noted, “Since 2010, the economic, racial and ethnic stratification of students among MCPS high schools has increased . . . the achievement gap between high- and low-poverty high schools has widened . . . MCPS’ approach is not working as intended.”

If this were an isolated incident, we might brush it aside. But the anti-NCLB sentiment energizing Starr’s strategy can also be seen in the Obama administration’s ESEA-waiver gambit.

Now to be clear, Secretary Duncan has been an advocate for tougher standards and high-quality assessments, as he explained to a House appropriations subcommittee last week. But, as Anne Hyslop’s waiver study showed, fewer schools in the Waiver Era are going to be held accountable for their results. Similarly, Chubb and Clark’s report on waivers suggests that freedom from NCLB is likely to lead to some states’ re-embracing testing and accountability approaches that had failed prior to NCLB.

For all of its imperfections, NCLB did some serious good. Today’s testing backlash may be inevitable, and it may be cathartic in some camps. But my hope is that those pushing this agenda realize that the more successful they are, the more we all will reap what they sow.

Perhaps that’s an idyllic world of authentic teaching and learning, where children learn to love schooling and take charge of their own educations. Or maybe it’s a return to the lamentable pre-NCLB era, where a paucity of assessments and interventions allowed states, districts, and schools to hide achievement gaps and do little in response when they were revealed.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College