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On Point In Education: Reauthorization of education law is opportunity for change

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which spawned the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, is the central linchpin of the federal education agenda. Signed into law in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson, it has set forth federal agendas on education and has been the primary pathway for federal funding to state and local agencies.
The law hasn’t always been popular. Over the last 50 years, ESEA has been the main battleground in determining who should have the responsibility of setting forth our educational priorities. Is it the federal government, the state, or our local districts?
In its many iterations, the ESEA has changed significantly with the waxing and waning of political priorities. The last major reauthorization came in 2002, with the No Child Left Behind Act, which was legislated to bring all students to grade level achievement by 2014. While the aim of NCLB was noble, it relied on recriminations, takeovers, and invalid accountability measures to move our systems. Recent research has clearly articulated the inefficacy of the entire program and its aim to close the achievement gap.
The Senate now finds itself engaged in a battle to figure out how to pick up the pieces of NCLB, and what to do about annual testing of schools. Senators are falling on both sides of this sword, and there are numerous proposals on the table to try and make reauthorization a possibility. Unfortunately, our federal education policy is a bit of a mess, and it’s difficult to see anyone agreeing on the biggest issue in reauthorization: testing.
It’s understandable that many, including the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan support some form of annual testing. How do we assess our schools without some metric that relays critical information that we can use to make adjustments, improve programs, and set priorities in the maelstrom of educational reform? With the adoption of the Common Core in 43 states, we are close to being able to establish a baseline for testing nationwide, which could potentially lead to stronger collaboration and development of research-based best practices.
Yet the one issue hanging out there, which will prove most challenging, is how to design this annual testing system to push schools to be better and not undermine them to create the kind of stratification and opportunity gaps that we are currently working to overcome. The testing must work to inspire and engage school districts, not punish them. There must be some reflective component to the accountability model that provides resources and acts as a means for the system to gauge progress using a summative, singular test as only one of a number of measures.
School districts need to be able to act on the information they are compiling. An assessment once a year does not move a system. If the federal government’s intention is one of changing the lives of our students and closing the opportunity gap, part of the ESEA reauthorization needs to look more closely at what has been proven to effect change, as messy as that is, rather than focusing the entire debate on an annual test that loses sight of the significant advances in educational knowledge I think we all share in 2015.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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