WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday that testing U.S. schoolchildren annually in math and reading is critical for measuring their educational progress, setting the stage for what is likely to be a contentious Capitol Hill debate on the federal role in education.
His speech — on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's introduction of a landmark education equity bill — was the Obama administration's latest effort to make its case for federally mandated testing. Civil rights groups and state education chiefs have also voiced support for it.
"I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness," Duncan said in remarks prepared for delivery. "That means all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher's classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school."
With Republicans newly in charge of both houses of Congress, Senate education Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said his top education priority is fixing the No Child Left Behind Act, which expired in 2007. His first hearing is expected the week of Jan. 20 with a focus on testing.
He said in a statement that the committee should be able to complete and send to the Senate a bill early this year. "My goal is to keep the best portions of the original law and restore to states and communities the responsibility for deciding whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing," he said.
No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, requires that states annually test students in reading and math in grades three to eight and once in high school.
The law requires schools to show annual growth in student achievement or face consequences. It has been credited with putting a focus on how schools handle minority, low-income, English learners and special needs students, but also has led to complaints that teachers were teaching to standardized tests and that mandates were unrealistic and penalties ineffective. Beyond the federal requirements, many districts and states require other standardized tests.
Since 2012, President Barack Obama has allowed states to get a waiver from some of the more stringent requirements of the law, but they had to agree to requirements such as implementing teacher evaluation systems with teeth.
There's been widespread agreement that the comprehensive law needs to be fixed, but disagreement over how to do it.
The National Education Association, a teachers union, wants Congress to adopt a federal requirement that students be tested just once in elementary, middle and high school. "Parents and educators know that the one size fits all annual federal testing structure has not worked," NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. She said states and districts should be given flexibility in deciding how to use testing to identify achievement gaps.
On Sunday, a coalition of 20 civil rights groups said one of their top priorities with the reauthorization is continuing the federal annual testing mandate.
"The reason is simple: Kids who are not tested end up not counting," Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, wrote in a blog accompanying the release by the civil rights groups
The Council of Chief State School Officers said it supports annual testing because "every parent has a right to know how their child is performing academically in public school."
One reason the testing issue has been an area of focus is because of the role the results can play in teacher evaluations. Last year, Duncan said states can apply for extra time before they use student test scores to judge educators' performance.
Another factor is that millions of students this spring for the first time will take new Common Core-based assessments.
Several states and districts are already reviewing the quality and quantity of the tests given.
Speaking at Seaton Elementary School in a historically African-American neighborhood in Washington that has a large share of Hispanic students, Duncan said that Obama's proposed budget will include $2.7 billion for enhanced programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Duncan said he wants to work together on a law that "fosters innovation, advances equity, and supports children and educators." He said there are areas for productive compromise, but "Congress must not compromise the nation's vital interest in lifting up all students and protecting the vulnerable."
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