Teachers Seek NCLB Reform

K-12 Testing

In a series of statements and actions, the 2003 Representative Assembly (RA) of the National Education Association (NEA) moved forcefully to oppose the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NEA opposition to NCLB has been growing since last year’s Assembly, when it adopted resolutions against high-stakes testing and other requirements of the law (see Examiner Summer, 2002).


Steps taken against NCLB at the July 2003 RA included: member endorsement of stronger resolutions; a critical speech by NEA President Reg Weaver; a major presentation on NCLB; introduction of legislation to make major changes in ESEA; and announcement of plans for a lawsuit challenging NCLB as an unfunded mandate imposed on states and districts.


The growing resistance of rank-and-file teachers to high-stakes testing has sparked resolutions against the misuse of tests. This year, the 10,000 RA delegates reinforced the NEA’s opposition to test misuse and approved language stating that standardized tests should be an adjunct, not the central measure used in assessment and accountability (see page 14).


To solidify its opposition to NCLB, the members also called for revisions to ESEA to allow states to test students once each in elementary, middle and high school, rather than annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school.


Weaver’s Speech
President Reg Weaver repeatedly roused the delegates as he criticized NCLB and its testing provisions. He charged that NCLB is setting up public schools, teachers and children to fail, “will force many teachers to do nothing more than teach to the tests,” will drive experienced teachers out of the profession and will pave the way for privatization and vouchers.


Weaver asked his members, “Does it rile you up that all of your good work in the classroom will be judged by the result of a single ‘high stakes’ test score?” A crescendo of applause was his answer.


He then charged that the U.S. “refuses to provide every child with a quality public education,” though it is the world’s richest nation. This country, he said, would “rather incarcerate than educate.” He pointed out that “Washington’s latest round of tax cuts will leave no millionaire behind–but will actually leave millions of children behind.”


Weaver received the warmest applause by declaring, “We have come too far, worked too hard, and sacrificed too much to allow all that we have achieved to be swept away by people who would not last a day in our classrooms.”


Session on NCLB
The NEA held a large session on ESEA that featured Prof. Gary Orfield of the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Jill Morningstar of the Children’s Defense Fund. Both strongly criticized NCLB. Morningstar said, “Accountability should not rest on a single day, a single hour, a single testing situation. A North Carolina study found that 80 percent of teachers spent more than 20 percent of their time practicing for tests–that’s not real learning. The single most important factor for improving [student achievement] is the teacher. It is tragic that a law designed to help students is actually driving teachers from the field.”


At a symposium following the presentations by Orfield and Morningstar, NEA Executive Committee member Becky Pringle explained, “NEA members have expressed grave concern about the unintended consequences [of the ESEA]. They have talked about narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test, diminished focus on critical thinking skills, elimination of ‘non-essential courses,’ widening of the achievement gap, increased dropout rates, an increasingly unsafe environment, a decrease in highly qualified teachers (especially in schools in need), and a decrease in paraprofessionals.”


In his speech, Weaver outlined the NEA’s legislative program, which focuses on its “Great Public Schools for Every Child Act.” This set of proposals would require full funding of ESEA, flexibility for the states to put more workable accountability systems in place and targeted help to schools most in need of assistance.


Several NEA proposals had already been introduced in Congress. For example, S.956, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, would allow states making adequate yearly progress on their state exams to reduce testing to three times in each student’s career. The NEA now calls for all states to be able to do so. Other legislation would: guarantee full funding for ESEA, defer implementation of sanctions in any year in which Congress appropriates less than 95 percent of the authorized funding for ESEA, and allow school districts to prohibit the transfer of students from schools identified for school improvement to another school if the receiving school is at or above capacity or if such transfer would increase that school’s average class size above what the state prescribes.


Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down a proposal to suspend NCLB accountability sanctions until the law is fully funded. Nearly 200 members voted for the proposal.


Leaders also announced that the NEA will organize a lawsuit against NCLB as an unfunded mandate. One section of the law says that states cannot be required “to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.” The American Association of School Administrators has agreed to support the suit. NEA reported that it is in discussion with a “number of states” about it, and a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association expressed interest.


The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Congressional Research Services have both produced analyses of how such litigation might proceed. There appears to be little precedent for such a suit. NCSL also pointed out that states might face increased litigation for failing to provide districts with sufficient funding to meet the federal law, which could increase state interest in suing the federal government.


However, even successful litigation may not ease the testing burden imposed by NCLB. A recent Government Accounting Office study reported a range of possible costs, largely dependent on whether states build minimal programs that rely on multiple-choice items or more elaborate testing programs. If states implement the least sophisticated tests, as the U.S. Department of Education has allowed them to do, Congress probably has appropriated sufficient funds for states to meet the law’s minimum requirements.


• For more information on the NEA’s positions, see http://www.nea.org, click on NEA on the Issues, and look at testing and accountability, and No Child Left Behind. Reg Weaver’s speech is posted, the NEA’s actual proposed legislation is not, nor are full copies of the resolutions. Legislation that has been introduced and NEA supports is at http://capwiz.com/nea/issues/bills/