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Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing “ESEA Reauthorization: Standards and Assessments”

As Prepared for Delivery

“Today’s hearing will focus on the important role that standards and assessments play in our education system.   Given the foundational role of standards and assessments, we had planned to have this hearing at the beginning of our ESEA hearing series, but had to reschedule due to the Senate calendar.  I want thank our witnesses and the other members of the HELP Committee for their flexibility. 

“In our previous ESEA hearings, a variety of experts have impressed on us the importance of our country developing world-class education system that prepares our students to be successful after high school graduation.  In order to do this, it is vital that we have a clear understanding of what students need to learn, and develop ways to accurately assess their progress to determine what they are learning and where they need additional help. 

“Nearly 30 years ago, the landmark report, ‘A Nation at Risk,’ highlighted the need for rigorous standards in our country’s schools.  About a decade later, the nation’s Governors heeded that call with the Charlottesville Summit, and the federal government supported state’ efforts to develop standards by passing Goals 2000 and the Improving America’s Schools Act (the 1994 version of ESEA).   At the beginning of the last decade we took the next steps by requiring that all students within a given state be held to the same high standards. 

“These standards helped to end a two-tiered system that meant lower expectations for disadvantaged students.   However, the standards did not ensure that students were being prepared for success after high school graduation.  In Iowa, for example, over 80 percent of high school graduates plan to pursue training or college after high school.  Yet, too often, they are unprepared to meet the challenges of postsecondary education.  Experts estimate that nearly 60 percent of students entering postsecondary schools need to take remedial courses to catch up to college level course work. 

“This places a tremendous strain on institutions to catch students up, and often extends the time a student spends in college, which can increase tuition costs and prevent a student from graduating on time, or at all.   Students that require a remedial reading course are almost three times as likely to drop out before attaining a bachelor’s degree. 

“The Alliance for Excellent Education has estimated that this need for remediation costs our nation at least $3.7 billion a year.  The problem is also evident in the workforce.  A recent study estimated that over 50 percent of high school graduates do not have the skills to do their job, compared to less 20 percent of college graduates.

“So while the adoption of state standards was no small achievement in NCLB, it is clear that as we reauthorize this bill serious improvements are necessary.  We must ensure that the standards states set are not false benchmarks, but translate into success whether students chose to go to college or enter a career.

“The good news is that, once again, states are taking the lead, with the vast majority already working together to create college and career ready standards. There are many reasons why it makes sense for states to work together to develop these common standards.  Students in America are increasingly mobile, and low-income students even more so.   Students from military families and migrant students are obvious examples of those who would benefit from common standards across states.  In building our nation’s global competitiveness, we must recognize that our students who are no longer competing with graduates from the county or even the state next door, but with graduates on the other side of the world. 

“There are also important civil rights and equity questions at play here.  Professor Goodwin Liu of Boalt Hall Law School at Berkeley published a paper showing that those states with the highest minority and low-income populations also tend to have the lowest standards. 

“Finally, the obvious issues of teacher preparation and economies of scale are central to this conversation.  How can schools of education properly prepare teachers to teach to standards if those standards may be significantly different in the state where the teacher ends up teaching after graduation? 

“One reason for the low-quality of our assessments is that we have paid to create them 50 times over, each time slightly adjusting them to meet a different set of state standards.  Paying once for a much higher quality set of assessments that really meet the needs of all students would be a much better investment. 

“For these reasons and more I applaud the leadership of the Chiefs and the Governors and their partners in developing this Common Core.   I look forward to hearing more about this from Dr. Paine and Dr. Schmeiser. 

“However, along with setting high achievement goals we must also develop the ability to measure whether or not students are meeting those goals.  Because of NCLB’s testing requirements, we know more about which students are achieving and which need more assistance and support. 

“However, in many cases that measurement is being done through low-quality tests that do not measure the range of skills and knowledge that we value. Technological advancements have made it possible to adapt questions during a test to better show the depth of a student’s knowledge of the subject or to electronically score short-answer or essay questions, not just multiple choice.  While these and other improvements are still being explored, we need to support state efforts to move to higher-quality assessments.

“It is also important to remember that we are learning more and more about the diverse ways in which students process information, and the different ways they demonstrate their learning on tests.   As we develop new assessment systems, we must keep in mind the diversity of our students, and make sure assessments are flexible enough to provide valid, reliable and useful data for all of our students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners.  All students deserve to have their progress measured, so they can receive the help they need to succeed.

“In this reauthorization it is critical that we redouble our commitment to ensuring that students will graduate ready to meet the challenges of college and the workplace.  And we need to make sure that we have accurate data on their progress toward this goal. 

“As we have heard time and time again, our economic success in the next century is directly tied to our ability to have a highly-educated, highly skilled workforce.  Adopting high quality standards and assessments is an important first step to that end.

“I look forward to hearing from our panelists today, and thank them for being here.  Now, I invite Senator Enzi to make his opening statement.”