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No More Pencils, No More Books: The Fight That Could Doom Standardized Tests

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander unveiled the “working draft” of his proposal to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on Tuesday, kicking off what will likely be months of debate and negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over standardized tests and the broader direction of federal involvement in American education.

“The plan that I am suggesting is to set realistic goals, keep the best portions of No Child Left Behind, and restore to states and communities the responsibility to decide whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing,” Alexander said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Alexander, who once served as secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, described an NCLB update as “eight years overdue,” and said that his proposed bill would roll back the powers of the Department of Education, defanging what he said “has, in effect, become a national school board.”

Most notably, Alexander’s draft includes a proposal to radically adjust federal mandates regarding standardized tests. Under NCLB, states are required to test all students in reading and math from grades 3-8, as well as once during high school. Alexander proposes a major policy revision that would grant states a tremendous amount of leeway in how they approach standardized testing. States could change what grades are tested, alter the subjects covered by the tests themselves, implement competency-based exams, and even let local communities call the shots on tests. The bill would also reduce the importance of standardized tests by eliminating a current requirement that test scores factor into teacher evaluations.

Alexander’s suggestion could run into fierce opposition from Democrats, however, who have argued that annual tests of some kind are essential to improving schools. Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the education committee, reiterated that support in a speech on the Senate floor following Alexander’s.

“This is a civil rights issue, plain and simple,” said Murray. “If a school is consistently failing to provide quality education, year after year, parents deserve to know.”

Alexander seemed prepared to make some concessions, acknowledging in his speech that passing a bill would likely require 60 votes in the Senate, as well as President Barack Obama’s signature. He also indicated he was prepared to negotiate with Democrats to pass a bill.

Negotiating with Democrats will prove to be a balancing act. If Alexander gives up too much ground, his initiative could be disowned by Republican Senate leaders (who have not yet officially endorsed his approach), or at least spark a rebellion from more conservative committee members such as Sen. Tim Scott.

Even if Alexander gives ground on testing, however, his draft scales back federal influence in education in many other ways conservatives want. It eliminates the requirement that schools show “adequate yearly progress” towards a national proficiency goal (also eliminated), and eliminates a requirement that states hire only “highly qualified” teachers.

The bill also addresses the matter of state standards, clarifying that the secretary of education has no authority to “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over the adoption of state-level standards. That clause could influence the debate over Common Core, where opponents have accused the federal government of coercing adoption of the standards by linking them to NCLB waivers and Race to the Top grants.

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