Do the Right Thing for Kids: Keep Annual Testing in ESEA

Doing the right thing and making difficult decisions aren’t easy. Politics, limited resources and competing priorities make standing up for individuals or groups that don’t have a loud or powerful constituency almost impossible. This has never been clearer than in the current debate unfolding in the upcoming 114th Congress around reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. Earlier this week, Education Week reported that the incoming Republican Senate leadership is willing to weaken and potentially abandon protections for America’s low-income children, children of color and students with special needs. While these may just be “inside the beltway” trial balloons being floated as part of regular D.C. legislative deal-making, those of us who care about these students both inside and outside Washington cannot let Congress undermine decades of investment by the federal government and states that have driven progress.

History Says States Won't Act

Some current leaders and advocates argue that despite a lack of transparency and federal expectations, states and local leaders will do the right thing on their own. Local “pressure” and leadership will prevail. Truthfully, some will, but most won’t. We have a history of segregation, hiding and ignoring achievement gaps, underfunding of schools, and neglect of students with disabilities and English language learners. But thanks to meaningful federal oversight, each of these has been at least partially addressed. Even under No Child Left Behind, without federal pressure to keep standards high, states have shown a willingness to set the bar low, undercutting efforts to give families a true sense as to how prepared all of our children are for college and careers. Without annual transparency on the performance of all students, states can return to ignoring individual student growth, and families will lose out on a chance to know how their student is doing compared to peers across the country and around the globe. There is growing rhetoric from all sides about the current “crisis in education,” and admittedly there is still a lot of work to be done. Nevertheless, there is much progress we can point to in terms of gap closures and graduation and college enrollment rates, thanks in part to the federal pressure to improve. But now the new 114th Congressional leaders suddenly want to shrink the federal role and eliminate the ability of parents to receive annual data on their children’s performance. They think that states should simply decide on their own whether to test every year or every few years. We all know what states will do if for no other reason than to make a partisan point or save money.

We Need Annual Testing, Not Overtesting

Overtesting is a legitimate problem today, and we should test only as much as needed to inform instruction and hold ourselves accountable. But reducing annual testing to just a few grades or a sample of kids is a shameful attempt to avoid responsibility for educating children at risk. Kicking decisions about transparency to local decision-makers sounds good in a speech and makes for comfortable politics, but it is really just passing the buck on making the tough decisions and doing what’s right for students. Is annual testing and accountability the only solution? Of course not. Over the next few weeks many leaders, groups and educators will (and should) have their voices on the record of what must be in reauthorization. I personally agree that—in addition to transparency and accountability—states, districts and schools need more resources. These resources could be directed to expand early learning opportunities, increase social and emotional services, support educators and schools leaders, and provide access to basic education resources like art, counselors, and STEM and AP courses. But as the conversation heats up, and the prospect of a new bill gets closer to a reality, I worry that people forget that ignorance is not bliss; it comes with a steep price, especially for our most vulnerable kids. Less information on the progress of students, schools and districts will not make the problems of inequities go away. It will make them harder to identify and address.
Photo of a mother holding her daughter's hand on the first day of school at Englewood Montessori.
Ann Whalen
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...

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