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Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander bill returns school testing, accountability decisions to states

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s involvement in student testing and school accountability would be greatly curtailed under draft legislation U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is circulating as a starting point for fixing the Bush-era No Child Left Behind school-reform law.

States would be required to set high standards to measure student achievement, but the federal government could not dictate what those standards would be or require states to submit their standards for review or approval.

Public schools would no longer have to conform to a federal mandate of yearly progress, but states would have to establish accountability systems to measure whether schools are meeting prescribed standards.

The goal of the bill, to be called the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act, is to put more decisions about schools back in the hands of state and local communities, said Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We’ve had a trend toward a national school board, and we need to reverse that trend and put responsibility back to states and local school districts,” Alexander said Tuesday in a speech from the Senate floor.

Alexander has made fixing the landmark No Child Left Behind law his top priority as the committee chairman. To drive home that point, the committee’s first hearing under his leadership will be next Wednesday and will focus on school testing and accountability.

“I’m ready to get started,” Alexander said.

No Child Left Behind, the landmark school-reform law enacted with bipartisan support in 2001 under then-President George W. Bush, sought to hold schools accountable for student performance and get better-qualified teachers in classrooms. The law mandated that schools set academic standards and test students annually in reading and math while they are in grades three through eight and once while they are in high school. All students also must be tested periodically in science.

Test results are then used to determine whether schools are making adequate yearly progress. Those that aren’t are considered “failing” and can face severe consequences, including closure or replacing staff.

Critics have long argued that the law is too punitive, places so much emphasis on reading and math scores that other subjects are given short shrift, and doesn’t take into account that some schools may fall short because of a handful of low-performing students.

Since 2012, the Obama administration has issued waivers to 42 states to let them avoid some of the law’s more stringent requirements. In return for those waivers, the administration has required states to adopt certain standards, such as Common Core.

Alexander said it’s clear the law is no longer working. But the fundamental question that must be answered in revising the law “is to what extent the federal government should be telling states and local districts what they should be doing in their schools,” he said.

“I believe states should set their own academic standards,” Alexander said. “In my opinion, the federal government should be prohibited from telling Tennessee or any other state what its academic standards should be. If Tennessee wants Common Core, it should have it. If it doesn’t want it, it shouldn’t have it.”

In a speech Monday in Washington, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called No Child Left Behind “tired and prescriptive.” But he said any revision of the law should continue to include mandatory testing.

Alexander , who served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said he’s not ready to decide whether the existing tests should be scrapped. But, “I want to ask the question,” he said. “I want to learn from those outside the Senate: Should we keep the same tests or give states more flexibility?”

Under Alexander’s draft bill, the federal government would still support states and local school districts in fixing schools that are the lowest performing. States and local school districts would be encouraged to set up teacher and principal evaluation systems, but the federal government could not dictate or be involved in the design of those systems.

More than 60 programs under No Child Left Behind would be consolidated and streamlined, and those that are duplicative would be eliminated. States also would be encouraged to create and expand charter schools.