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The Enemy Of My Enemy: National Testing Debate Creates Odd Alliances

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday held its first hearing on how to reform No Child Left Behind, focusing on the contentious issue of whether to maintain existing federal mandates regarding standardized tests.

The hearing helped to highlight the bizarre alliances the battle over testing is creating, as Republicans join with liberal teachers, school choice activists back President Obama and unions find themselves split in two.

Currently, NCLB requires all public school students to be tested in math and reading every year from grades 3-8 as well as once in high school. Students also need to be tested three times in science. Now, Senate Republicans are looking to roll back that mandate, or perhaps eliminate it entirely.

“Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?” Sen. Lamar Alexander said to open the hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is spearheading the NCLB reform effort.

Here’s a breakdown of the chaos, and how different groups are lining up on the matter of annual tests.

Conservative Republicans: Against

In Congress, the strongest support for rollbacks in testing comes from conservative Republicans such as Rand Paul. For them, the concern is not just about the quality of the tests themselves, but more about what the testing mandates represent: A federal intervention into what was until 2002 a state-run issue. Not helping matters is the growing opposition to Common Core, and some, including Paul, have proposed eliminating the Department of Education entirely.

Reflecting this growing sentiment on the right, Alexander has suggested a major overhaul of testing, creating a “choose your own adventure” approach that would compel states to have some kind of testing regime, but would allow them to choose what grades are tested, what the tests cover and even whether tests are chosen at the state or local level.

While Alexander’s specific proposal hasn’t become the official party position and it could be overhauled over time, Wednesday’s hearing suggested that there won’t be many Republicans pushing for annual testing to stick around, as Republicans preferred to speak about its flaws rather than its virtues.

Progressive Teachers: Against

Perhaps the toughest critics of standardized tests are teachers. That hostility is particularly strong among those who identify as strong progressives, who bash testing as at best a waste of time and at worst totally antithetical to proper learning. This opposition was on display Wednesday, as the two teachers invited by Alexander to criticize annual tests were both from a left-wing background.

New York high school teacher Stephen Lazar, who blogs online about his experiences as a “very progressive” educator, spoke for many teachers in lambasting the culture he says is encouraged by annual tests.

“Every May [I] would get up and apologize to my students,” Lazar told the HELP Committee. “I would tell them… ‘For the last month of school, I am going to turn into a bad teacher to properly prepare you for state Regents exams.’ I told my students there would be no more research, no more discussion, no more dealing with complexity, no more developing as writers with voice and style. Instead, they would repeatedly write stock, formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts.”

The other teacher slamming annual tests on Wednesday, Jia Lee, was similar. She teaches at The Earth School in New York, a progressive-minded establishment known for its rooftop organic garden, and throughout her comments Wednesday railed against the “corporate profiteering” she says drives standardized testing. Nonetheless, Lee has become a hero to many conservative grassroots activists for leading an effort in New York to boycott the state’s new Common Core-based tests.

Barack Obama: For

President Obama has drawn a line in the sand on testing, dispatching Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to argue that annual testing is essential to any federal education law.

Duncan has suggested that Republican fervor for scrapping tests shows an indifference to how schools and students actually perform.

“I believe we may have fundamental differences with some congressional Republicans about whether or not the quality of education for every child, regardless of their zip code or where they live, is in the essential interest of our nation or whether it is simply optional,” Duncan told reporters last week at a D.C. elementary school. Duncan’s attitude is Obama’s, and the president’s position on testing appears so firm that it raises the question of whether any bill scaling it back significantly will automatically be vetoed.

Congressional Democrats: Divided

Unsurprisingly, most Democrats in Congress appear to be sticking with the president. Liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a strong defense of annual tests Wednesday, saying that before NCLB the federal government was simply “shoveling tax dollars out the door” without doing anything to make sure it wasn’t going to waste. Sen. Patty Murray, meanwhile, argued that tests have helped to narrow the racial achievement gap.

But this position isn’t unanimous, and Wednesday demonstrated that several cracks may be forming. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse hasn’t come out against annual tests, but he showed significant skepticism for that approach.

“There are two worlds. Contractors, consultants, academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal and state level,” Whitehouse said Wednesday. “And the other world is of principals and teachers who are actually providing education to students. And what I’m hearing from the second world is that the footprint of the first world has become way too big in their lives.”

There are dissenters in the House as well. Rep. Mark Takano, a former teacher, has been a critic of standardized tests for some time, while on Wednesday, moderate Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema reintroduced a bill coauthored by Republican Rep. Chris Gibson that would eliminate annual testing and instead only mandate one test every several years.

Teacher Unions: Split

Despite being among those most dramatically affected by annual testing, teachers unions have surprisingly been unable to agree on a united position to take on the matter.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, has officially called for annual testing to end, and instead has endorsed “grade-span” testing, where states would only be required to test students once within a span of grades, such as 3-5. This position has positioned them closer to Republicans than Obama, a circumstance that is rarely the case, to say the least.

The American Federation of Teachers, the other large national union with close to 2 million members, has surprisingly endorsed keeping annual testing, releasing a shared position paper with the Center for American Progress arguing that annual testing is important for tracking progress. The group does, however, want to reduce the penalties associated with standardized tests, and only have certain tests be “high stakes” ones.

The difference of opinion could be rooted in union demographics. The AFT is comprised more heavily of urban schoolteachers in minority-heavy districts, and thus has more direct links to the civil rights groups that are defending annual tests.

School Administrators: For

In contrast to teachers, the bureaucrats and administrators who operate school systems are defending testing. The Council of Chief State School Officers (which represents state-level education chiefs) has called for preserving annual tests, though they have suggested states could have more flexibility in deciding how those tests work.

Charter Schools: For

Republicans are generally stronger supporters of charters than Democrats are, but on the issue of testing some charter advocates are standing on the sidelines, while others are explicitly endorsing Obama’s position.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that tests are a key component of school choice in a statement released Wednesday,

“Statewide annual assessments support parents by equipping them with the information they need to choose a high-quality public school for their children,” said Rees. “They also empower teachers and schools by informing them about student achievement and progress. Without statewide annual assessments, the public won’t have a clear picture of how our schools are performing or how our students are progressing.”

Civil Rights Activists: For

Left-leaning civil rights organizations have waded into the testing debate in a big way, arguing that annual tests are necessary to keep racial minorities, the poor and the disabled from being ignored by state and local governments.

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella organization for groups like the ACLU and NAACP, made the civil rights case for testing on Wednesday. Henderson said Alexander’s proposal to loosen testing “bends over backwards” to accommodate state and local bodies that have “failed our children and avoided any accountability for their failures.” Without a federal stick nudging them onwards, Henderson, said, states find it too easy to start slacking.

“These standards help to drive the kind of investments that states must make in their educational systems to ensure their students meet the challenges of today,” said Henderson.

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