Administration Offers Bad “Waiver” Plan as Congress Fails to Rewrite Federal Education Law

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, September 2011

While Congress continues to fail to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Obama-Duncan administration is attempting to effectively write new law through a waiver process. Under their proposal, states will be able to stop adding to their rapidly growing lists of schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in exchange for agreeing to the Administration’s pet “school reform” schemes. One is to use student test scores to judge teachers, which will require districts to vastly expand the number of tests so teachers in every subject can be labeled by their students’ scores. Some states, however, may refuse to continue with AYP while rejecting Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “flexibility” deal. In the coming year, activists will need to build a far larger movement to dramatically overhaul federal education law, linking that work to local and state efforts at genuine reform.

Virtually all observers agree that Congress will not re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this session. (NCLB is the current version of ESEA.) This is despite the fact that ever-growing evidence shows that the law has not only failed to improve education but also has caused serious damage. 

In mid-September, Sen. Lamar Alexander and other Republicans introduced bills to change NCLB. While they retain the test-based schooling concepts of NCLB, their proposals are far less prescriptive and less dangerous than the Administration’s waiver plans.

This fall, the House Education Committee, chaired by John Kline, will consider legislation concerning teacher quality. In response, the Forum on Educational Accountability sent a letter to Congress. It called on Senators and Representatives to avoid requiring  states to create educator accountability systems and particularly to not mandate the use of student test scores in any voluntary, federally-supported system it might create.

After dealing with its teacher quality bill, the House Education Committee will then address accountability, assessment and school improvement, the core components of NCLB. The offices of some House Republicans have expressed interest in rolling back NCLB’s mandated testing. Few House Democrats had been willing to consider this possibility. It is important for activists to continue to influence members of Congress, particularly members of the House, to win such a change in the Committee.

Congress should overhaul NCLB in line with the recommendations of the FairTest-chaired Forum on Educational Accountability in order to:

  • significantly reduce the amount of mandated testing;
  • help states design fundamentally different assessment systems;
  • focus on evidence-based school improvement efforts; and
  • provide the resources needed so that every child has a strong and equitable opportunity to acquire knowledge, skills and dispositions to be an effective, engaged citizen.

Even if the House Committee does move these bills, and even if the full House approves them, it remains unlikely the Senate will pass anything. While Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions chair Tom Harkin says it will act in mid-October, the Democrats and Republicans have many disagreements. Democrats might be able to find enough agreement among themselves to push a bill out of committee, but such legislation is unlikely to pass the full Senate, never mind be reconciled with legislation that passes the House.