WASHINGTON — A Republican-controlled Senate committee began work Wednesday on revising the landmark No Child Left Behind education law, focusing first on federally mandated testing of America’s schoolchildren.
The chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, said at the heart of the debate is whether there is too much testing. Alexander said he is open to discussion on whether the federal government should dictate standardized testing or leave it up to states.
“Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?” said Alexander, R-Tenn., before a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Alexander has released a proposal with two options. One would keep the testing mandate as it is. The other would allow states to decide what to do on testing. Both approaches would require annual reporting of student achievement broken down by smaller groups.
President George W. Bush’s education law was designed primarily to help poor and minority children. It mandated annual testing in reading and math for all students in grades three to eight and again in high school. Schools had to show annual growth or face consequences.
The requirement has been credited with showing how schools handle minorities, low-income students, English learners and special-needs children, but also led to complaints that the law opened the door to more tests and a test-taking culture.
Since 2012, President Barack Obama has allowed states to get a waiver from some of the more stringent requirements. The administration has steadfastly supported the annual testing requirement as a way to chart student growth and track how historically underserved groups are doing.
The testing requirement is backed by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, but not by Republicans such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and others who think the government should not dictate testing.
Murray said Congress “can and should encourage states and districts to reduce redundant and low-quality tests.”
“While we carefully consider changes to assessments and accountability to give states and districts the flexibility they need, we can’t forget our obligations to the kids who too often fall through the cracks,” Murray said.
Alexander said he wants to get an update of the law to Obama in the first months of the year. Much of the debate probably will focus on Washington’s role in improving failing schools.
Alexander said he hears from governors and school superintendents who say if the government did not dictate policy, then it would be difficult for them to do it. But, he said, he is concerned about the government getting in the way of positive change and of a backlash against policies embraced at the federal level.
“I understand that there can be short-term gains from Washington’s orders, but my experience is that long term success can’t come that way,” Alexander said.
The law has been due to be renewed since 2007. All sides agree it needs to be fixed.