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Letter to Senate HELP Committee on principles for ESEA reauthorization

January 20, 2015

Dear Senator,

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we applaud the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for holding the first education hearing of the 114th Congress on the critically important issue of assessments and accountability. We submit the following information for the record in conjunction with tomorrow’s hearing, “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the cornerstone of the federal presence in K-12 education, is designed to support programs to level the playing field for the most vulnerable including children of poverty, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. Reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for a public education system that promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students, no matter their zip code.

To that end, we believe reauthorization must advance three core goals: (1) create a new generation accountability system that advances opportunity and excellence for all students; (2) ensure qualified educators for students and empower them to lead; and (3) ensure more time for students to learn and teachers to teach. (See attachment: “ESEA Reauthorization Goals: More Opportunity & Learning for Students”)

Since it became law in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has dramatically increased the amount of standardized summative testing in schools. This is due, in part, to the increase in federally-required tests in the law—the number of math and reading tests has more than doubled, increasing from 6 to 14. It also is a reflection of the high-stakes nature of the consequences associated with federally-mandated tests. The snowballing effect—federal, state, and local tests; test preparation; and narrowing of the curriculum at the expense of a well-rounded education for every child—has been a high price to pay, particularly for the students most in need.

For this reason, we strongly favor the inclusion in ESEA of grade-span testing (once at the elementary, middle, and high-school level) to give teachers more one-on-one time with students, especially those most in need of extra time and help. In addition, to ensure that tests are developed and used for their true purpose, we recommend additional changes to identify gaps and assist teachers in helping their students succeed:

  • Support classroom-level, teacher-developed assessments that are aligned with college and career-ready standards with clear scoring rubrics.
  • Provide states and districts with the flexibility to determine—based on input from classroom educators—the types of tests that will provide educators and parents the most useful information to improve instruction and help students learn, and require states to attest in their state plans to the elimination of tests that are redundant or not useful.
  • Use the time recovered from fewer tests to support performance-based and project-based learning and assessment, and ensure students that have access to well-rounded courses—including fine arts and physical education—instead of the narrowed curriculum that is an unintended consequence of NCLB testing mandates.
  • Enact “Ethan’s Law” so that educators can tell parents about opt-out options without penalty.

NEA members across the country tell us stories every day about the negative impacts of the overuse of high stakes testing on their students and schools. Consider Melissa P.’s story from Shoreline, Washington:

Some of my students have significant intellectual disabilities (2-4 years behind their peers) but have to take the same bubble test as everyone else. They have to take it because they are able to hold a pencil and fill in bubbles, even though we know already that they will fail the test because they aren’t working even close to “grade level.” These kids work hard, and they are learning and growing, but that will never be shown by standardized tests. Furthermore, their scores are averaged with the scores from the rest of the school.

Educators and parents have loudly sounded the alarm about the overuse and misuse of standardized testing wrought by NCLB. Our belief in the need to adjust the number and types of tests given, and in how they are used, rests squarely with our desire to ensure that ESEA truly fulfills its purpose in addressing opportunity gaps. With one in five children in this country—more than 16 million children—living in households with incomes below the official U.S. poverty threshold ($23,850 for a family of four) and the news last week that a majority of public school students are now eligible for free- and reduced-price meals, the federal role in ensuring equal opportunity is as essential as it was when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. Unfortunately, instead of raising student achievement NCLB has perpetuated a system that delivers unequal opportunities and uneven quality to America’s children, creating a culture of high-stakes testing that makes it impossible for educators to do what is most important: instill a love of learning in their students. 

We look forward to working with members of this Committee to make it a reality that this ESEA reauthorization promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students. 

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations