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Leonie Haimson: Setting the Record Straight about the Every Child Achieves Act

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Leonie Haimson, leader of Class Size Matters and Student Privacy Matters, writes here about the Every Child Achieves Act and the distortions that are filling her email box these days. Haimson is also a member of the board of the Network for Public Education and a fearless supporter of public education.

She writes:

Over the last few days, I have been flooded with blog posts, Facebook comments, memes and tweets, claiming that the bi-partisan bill to be debated this week in the Senate, called ECAA, or Every Child Achieves Act, must be opposed, because it “locks in” Common Core and many of the worst, test-based accountability policies of Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education.

Yet this is far from the truth. For nearly 13 years, students have suffered under the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). NCLB was likely the dumbest law ever passed by Congress, because it required that all public school children in the United States reach “proficiency” by 2014 as measured by test scores, or else their schools would be deemed failing.

The inanity of NCLB was exacerbated by Race to the Top and other policies pursued by Arne Duncan that put testing on steroids. These policies treated our children as data points, reduced our schools to test prep factories, and attempted to convince parents that their education must be handed over to testing companies, charter operators, and ed tech corporations. This disastrous trend resulted in huge parent protests and hundreds of thousands of students opting out of state exams last spring.

The current Senate bill is admittedly far from perfect. It still requires annual standardized tests in grades 3-8, as did NCLB. It would allot far too many federal dollars and too little accountability to charter schools, while encouraging merit pay for teachers – all policies likely to lead to wasted taxpayer funds that would be better spent on programs proven to work, such as class size reduction. It would do nothing to protect student data privacy, while allowing the continued disclosure of sensitive personal information to vendors and other third parties without parental knowledge or consent. Hopefully this critical issue will be addressed separately by Congress, by improving one or more of the many student privacy bills introduced during the past few months.

Yet ECAA still represents a critical step forward, because it places an absolute ban on the federal government intervening in the decision-making of states and districts as to how to judge schools, evaluate teachers or implement standards. In particular, it expressly bars the feds from requiring or even incentivizing states to adopt any particular set of standards, as Duncan has done with the Common Core, through his Race to the Top grants and NCLB waivers.

It would also bar the feds from requiring that teachers be judged by student test scores, which is not only statistically unreliable according to most experts, but also damaging to the quality of education kids receive, by narrowing the curriculum and encouraging test prep to the exclusion of all else. The bill would prevent the feds from imposing any particular school improvement strategy or mandating which schools need improvement – now based simplistically on test scores, no matter what the challenges faced by these schools or the inappropriateness of the measure. Finally, the bill would prevent the feds from withholding funds from states that allow parents to opt out of testing, as Duncan most recently threatened to do to the state of Oregon.

It is true that many states have already drunk the Common Core/testing Koolaid, led by Governors and legislators influenced by the deep pockets of corporate reformers or tempted by RTTT funds. ECAA also still requires annual testing, which the Tester amendment would replace with grade-span testing, as many organizations including FairTest and Network for Public Education have strongly urged. (Full disclosure: I’m on NPE’s board.) The bill has a provision aimed at alleviating over-testing, by requiring that states audit the number of standardized exams and eliminate duplication, though it’s not clear how effective this requirement will be.

But with or without the Tester amendment, ECAA would release the stranglehold that the federal government currently has on our schools, and would allow each of us to work for more sane and positive policies in our respective states and districts. For this reason alone, it deserves the support of every parent and teacher who cares about finally moving towards a more humane, and evidence-based set of practices in our public schools.  

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