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Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls for revamp of 'No Child Left Behind,' but still backs annual testing



Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about the administration's priorities for education at Seaton Elementary in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about the administration's priorities for education at Seaton Elementary in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a big pronouncement on Monday that President Barack Obama would like to see the No Child Left Behind law tossed into the dust bin of history.

“I believe we can work together – Democrats and Republicans – to move beyond the tired, prescriptive No Child Left Behind law. I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – more money – than they receive today,” Duncan said in a speech Monday at the Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. 

But Duncan also wants to keep a federal requirement to continue testing students yearly — and link teacher evaluations to how well students do on test scores.

At the same time, the education secretary said Congress should pass a new federal education law that reduces the burden of testing and test preparation on classroom time.

How much testing is needed and whether the federal government should mandate it will be among the contentious issues in any revision of No Child Left Behind. 

California teachers, who have been advocating for fewer tests, say the exams take away from instructional time.

“Not only are you testing, but you’re preparing students to take the test so you do a pre-test, or they’re doing some test preparation,” said California Teachers Association Vice President Eric Hines.

While Duncan suggested schools should place less emphasis on tests, his comments were greeted with skepticism: Manhattan Beach high school teacher Shawn Chen doubts the law’s testing requirement and penalties for failing to improve all student scores will go away. 

"Well, I don’t necessarily believe it," she said.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind law is still the law of the land, but is overdue for reauthorization. Annual testing remains a key component of the law.

This spring, California’s new, computerized Smarter Balanced tests based on Common Core standards will fulfill the federal testing requirement, although the Los Angeles Unified School District has asked the state to hold off on using the scores for measuring school improvement for the second year in a row.

Sacramento hasn’t decided how to measure and release test scores, which are aimed at holding schools accountable for performance. The State Board of Education is tackling those issues in the next few months.

Michael Kirst, the board's president, said the education secretary's remarks left a lot of room for debate and questions. Current law requires annual testing in math and reading for 3rd- to 8th-graders and once in high school.

“Will he require every student to be tested every year in those two subjects or will he let samples of students be tested so that the results are only valid for the school and not for each pupil?" Kirst asked. "You can test pupils at the school level through a sample of students rather than testing every one.”

Duncan also called in his speech for broader access to preschool, better teacher preparation, and more equity in educational opportunities.

His comments served as a symbolic planting of the Obama Administration’s flag as the Republicans who control Congress get comfortable with their majorities in both houses, political observers noted. Any horse trading, if possible given the divide between the Republicans in Congress and the Oval Office, could be interesting, said Morgan Polikoff, University of Southern California education researcher. 

“The administration could get something that it wants, maybe funds for early education in exchange for loosening some of the control across accountability and giving that back to the states," Polikoff said. "I don’t see that happening, but I think that is the key thing to watch.”