NCLB Reauthorization Unlikely to Change System of Testing

February 9, 2015

By Jason Burns

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law.

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. Image courtesy of

Previous Green & Write posts have examined the implications of a NCLB reauthorization on teacher evaluations, the Common Core State Standards, and the impact of a reauthorization on state policy. This post considers the potential impact of NCLB reauthorization on the current system of testing.

Recent proposals to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has sparked debate in the education policy community, and for good reason. Updates to the law would have broad effects on how and when students are assessed and how data from those assessments are used to evaluate schools and teachers. While much attention has been given to the possibility of ending the federal testing mandate, support in both major political parties in favor of a strong testing program makes it unlikely that student testing requirements will diminish.

The NCLB Testing Regime

According to the No Child Left Behind Act, states are required to develop and administer assessments to students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The purpose of these assessments is to evaluate students’ proficiency on “challenging academic standards” that are determined by each state. To ensure that states meet the requirements of NCLB, they must submit an assessment plan to the US Department of Education, which must approve the plan in order for a state to be in compliance with NCLB.

States that do not comply face losing Title I monies, which are an important source of revenue for school systems like Detroit, where Title I funding is expected to be $130 million this year, or about 19% of the overall budget.

Interest Groups React to NCLB Reauthorization

Powerful interest groups have weighed in on the debate over testing that is central to any reauthorization of NCLB. Some have long criticized the NCLB program of testing, claiming that it has redefined the meaning of education, and welcome a reauthorization of the law that could move away from a focus on testing. Others hold that a rigorous program of assessment is an integral component of holding schools and teachers accountable for improving the education that students receive.

Among the most vocal critics of NCLB have been the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), both of which have issued recommendations for an NCLB reauthorization. The AFT’s Priorities for ESEA Reauthorization blames the current system of testing for many of the problems of teaching and learning, claiming that because of it “…the curriculum is being narrowed and the joy and creativity of teaching and learning have been removed from classrooms.” A press release from the NEA implies that this could be remedied through greater state and local flexibility on assessments and a system of student performance “that looks at more than just a test score.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization that represents the heads of state education agencies, favors keeping the NCLB testing schedule, but allowing states greater flexibility in designing and implementing standards and assessments.

Civil rights organizations have defended NCLB’s standards and assessment regime. A statement signed by the NAACP, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Children’s Defense Fund, and National Council of La Raza, along with several others, claims that the federal government’s role in education “must be honored and maintained in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” The statement urges lawmakers to keep NCLB’s testing schedule as well as the Secretary of Education’s oversight role.

Though there has been much hype about the possibility of changing the federal testing mandate, it appears that, overall, political support for changing NCLB’s testing requirements is weak.

Congressional Plans for NCLB Reauthorization

The greatest potential for a change to the NCLB assessment schedule comes from a draft bill introduced in January by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) to the Senate Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Senator Alexander’s draft bill would give states greater discretion on student assessment and provides two options for a program of testing. Option 1 would give states discretion over when students are tested and how students could be assessed. For example, states could authorize the use of local assessments, portfolio assessments, or any other method of assessing student performance they see fit. Option 2 in Senator Alexander’s proposal keeps the same testing schedule as NCLB (annual tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school), but does not require that all students within a state be given common assessments. Instead, states would be able to approve the use of locally developed assessments.

Since the introduction of Senator Alexander’s bill in the Senate, a bill to reauthorize NCLB has been introduced by Representative John Kline (R-Minnesota) into the House education committee. This bill keeps the NCLB testing schedule that requires testing in grades 3-8 and once in high schools and also retains the provision that states are responsible for designing and implementing assessments. The most significant change the House bill would make to the current system would be to reduce the authority of the Secretary of Education. Representative Kline’s bill would prohibit the secretary “…from creating additional burdens on states and districts through the regulatory process” and also “…from demanding changes to state standards…”

It appears that congressional efforts to reauthorize NCLB would keep many of the same testing requirements, but shift all responsibility for student assessment to the states. This would reverse a decades-long trend that has seen a greater federal role in setting education policy.

The Obama Administration on NCLB Reauthorization

While the administration has not provided its own proposal for an NCLB reauthorization, a speech delivered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provides some insight into what the White House is looking for in a reauthorization of NCLB. Secretary Duncan’s speech focused on the life opportunities that come from education and argued that student assessment is an important component of monitoring and ensuring equality of opportunity for all students.

“We must begin every conversation by looking at student achievement – nothing matters more” Secretary Duncan asserted.

From Secretary Duncan’s speech, it seems that the Obama administration favors retaining the NCLB schedule of tests in a reauthorization of NCLB. Also, the civil rights language Secretary Duncan used implies the need for a significant role for the federal government, the traditional guarantor of civil rights, in a system of assessment.

The Future of Testing

Given that the current testing schedule is favored by civil rights groups, congressional Republicans, and the Obama Administration, significant change to the current testing framework seems improbable. Rather, a realignment of the responsibilities of state and federal education officials is much more likely. However, conflicting visions from Congress, the Obama Administration, and key interest groups make it difficult to predict how that realignment will take shape.

Green & Write will follow the NCLB reauthorization process to provide commentary on new developments.

Jason Burns –