WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray on Tuesday spelled out her goals for rewriting the federal government’s main education law, outlining a vision largely in accord with the Obama administration’s view that universal access to quality public education is a civil right.
But the Washington Democrat — who will be one of her party’s principal players as Congress works to reauthorize the law known as No Child Left Behind — was silent on the contentious issue of using students’ test scores to gauge teacher effectiveness.
Just the day before, Education Secretary Arne Duncan doubled down on that requirement by warning lawmakers not to go “back to the days when the only factor that never seemed to matter in teacher evaluation was if students were actually learning.”
Murray’s speech on the Senate floor came as Congress prepares for what could be a breakthrough year to update the long-stalled law, officially named the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in the mid-1960s.
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The law was updated and expanded with bipartisan fanfare in 2001 under President George W. Bush, when it became known as No Child Left Behind. It has been up for reauthorization since 2007 but has continued on autopilot amid widespread backlash against its mandates on annual testing and the impossibility of ensuring that every student be proficient in grade-level math and reading by the 2013-14 academic year.
Murray offered a strong defense of the current requirement that students be tested each year on those two subjects from third to eighth grades, and once in high school.
She agreed with Duncan that redundant or ineffective tests should be cut. But she said those should not be a pretext for doing away with the best tool parents have to track their children’s progress and to distinguish good schools from bad.
“I believe that annual assessments are one of the most important tools we have to make sure our schools are working for every student,” said Murray, the new top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “We need to make sure that these assessments don’t lead to unintended consequences. But I would be very concerned about any proposal that rolls back this key student and taxpayer protection and accountability tool.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the HELP committee, on Tuesday circulated a draft of his proposed legislation to committee members. Alexander hinted recently that he may be open to scaling back annual testing. At the same time, he also has said teacher quality should be measured less by teacher training or certification, but “evaluation systems related to student achievement.”
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has denounced what it calls the “test, blame and punish” system and is lobbying to roll back the 30 percent of the school year it says is consumed by preparing for and taking tests.
In contrast, the Council of Chief State School Officers, made up of state education commissioners and superintendents, has called for keeping the current schedule for tests in math and English, as well as for annual testing in science from grades 3 through 12.
Randy Dorn, Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, has argued that results of those tests should be used as one of the factors to evaluate teachers. Washington’s failure to mandate that prompted Duncan to yank the state’s waiver from meeting the academic benchmarks under No Child Left Behind. That 2014 revocation cost Washington school districts control over some $40 million of federal Title I program money allocated for disadvantage or disabled students.
Murray said the loss of the waiver is one sign that the law is broken, and said the sanction on Washington state “needs to change.”
Murray echoed Duncan’s call for expanding taxpayer-funded preschools to start educating children before age 5.
“Congress needs to catch up with the Democratic and Republican governors and legislators around the country who support investments in early learning, and we need to make the investments in our youngest kids that will pay off for generations to come,” Murray said.
Also like Duncan, Murray invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 call to make good public education for every child a cornerstone of the American society. Murray attested to the benefits of that vision in personal terms.
Murray’s son attended a state-supported preschool program, and she and her six siblings received good public educations despite her family’s plunge into poverty after her father became disabled with multiple sclerosis.
“Our nation’s commitment to that ideal was so important to me and my family. I wouldn’t be here today without it,” she said.
While Alexander and many Republicans are pushing for a reduced federal role in education, Murray noted that inequality persists around the nation, particularly for black and Latino students and children from low-income families.
In Louisiana, for instance, just 26 percent of fourth-graders reached the “proficient” level in math in 2013 on a national test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress; that was less than half the rate for New Hampshire or Massachusetts. The 2013 rate for Washington on that exam was 48 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s up from 36 percent in 2003.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ KyungMSong