Senate Plan to Revise No Child Left Behind Law Would Not Measure Teachers by Test Scores

The bill retains the requirement for yearly tests in math and reading for every student in third through eighth grade, and once in high school, and requires that the scores, broken down by race and income, be made public.

But it ends the framework under which almost all public schools were found to be failing, and could defuse what has become an all-out campaign by teachers, joined by many parents, to prevent having their job performances measured by students’ test scores.

The proposed legislation was negotiated by Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. Earlier this year, a House bill was abruptly pulled, mid-debate, when it became clear that it would not muster enough Republican support to pass.

The Senate proposal requires that states adopt “challenging” academic standards in reading, math and science that would enable students to fulfill state vocational guidelines or to enter public universities in the state without having to take remedial classes. But the bill specifically deprives the secretary of education of the power to approve these standards.

Opposition to standardized testing has boiled over in recent years as the Obama administration used financial incentives and relief from the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind law to require that states tether teachers’ job performance ratings to student test scores. The new Senate bill makes clear that states are not required to formally evaluate teachers or to use test scores if they do.

Also, under the proposal, the federal government would no longer prescribe how the states must handle schools with continuously poor scores.

“This is a big deal,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It goes back to the original intent of the law, to level the playing field for at-risk kids.”

She added, “The decreased emphasis on testing and the stakes that go along with it will help create some oxygen, so the attention is on instruction and the joy of learning.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, however, expressed disappointment that the new bill retained annual testing requirements.

“Are you going to give that third grader some relief from test and punish?” she said. “Under this proposal, they still have to take just as many tests.”

The No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, was the signature education achievement of the George W. Bush administration and created an elaborate set of cascading punishments for schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on test scores. It expired in 2007, but Congress has repeatedly failed to reauthorize the legislation, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

At its heart, the battle over the reauthorization reflects disagreement about how large a role the federal government should play in public schools. Democrats often argue that the most vulnerable children need the protection of the federal government. Republicans make the case that education is traditionally a state function and that the federal government has overstepped its bounds in recent years.

At a time when new, widely adopted academic standards known as the Common Core have led to bruising political battles, the Senate proposal prohibits the Education Department from pushing states to adopt any specific curriculum guidelines.

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, a watchdog group concerned with standardized testing, said he hoped that when the bill came up for debate, the amendment process would lead to “grade span” testing, in which children would be assessed in reading, math and science once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school, reducing the number of required tests to nine from 17.

Throughout the long negotiations over reauthorizing the law, civil rights groups have been concerned that children from low-income families and racial minorities be given adequate resources and quality teaching.

As the House bill was being debated, the Obama administration focused on how the reauthorization would affect funding for schools with the highest concentration of needy students, which receive extra federal resources under the current law.

The House proposal would have allowed states to make that extra funding portable, so that students who moved to a more affluent school would take the money with them. The Senate proposal retains the current funding criteria.

The White House issued a statement calling the Senate proposal “an important step” but stopped short of endorsing it.