Testing Debate Heats Up Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
As Betsy DeVos was growing into her new job as the United States Secretary of Education in spring 2017, she made some surprising comments about standardized testing. While on a trip to visit Valencia College in Florida, DeVos sat down for an interview with local television reporter Martie Salt in which she repeatedly shared her enthusiasm for "innovation and creativity" in education, and predicted that states will actively reimagine how they assess student learning rather than continue to rely on standardized testing as the primary measure of achievement.
"I expect we are going to see different approaches in different states," DeVos told Salt before praising Florida for always being "on the cutting edge with just about everything, educationally." However, she did not go into detail about what these "different approaches" to assessment might look like, nor did she discuss the particular cutting-edge strategies she admires. This may be because DeVos does not believe specific ideas about student achievement and assessment should come from herself as Education Secretary or the federal government as a whole.
Deciding how many tests or assessments to use and when to use them is "really a matter for states and locales to determine," DeVos insisted in her interview, tapping into a simmering debate over standardized testing and the government’s role in education. Once an assumed necessity, standardized test-based accountability plans are currently wavering in a land of uncertainty. Here’s a look at why that is.
Federal hands are tied... or are they?
For now, the federal government is tied to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law in 2015 by President Obama and replaced the increasingly unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. No Child Left Behind, first authorized in 2001, ushered in a long-lasting era of standardized test-based accountability for the nation’s public schools and, according to some, greatly expanded the federal government’s role in education.
Long before DeVos became Secretary of Education, disagreements about the role of testing factored heavily into the rewrite of the law. Some legislators, such as Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, advocated for moving away from standardized testing and the standardized use of test scores. As ESSA proposals were being considered in October 2015, Alexander wrote in Time magazine that, for federal education policymakers, "no issue has stirred as much controversy as … high-stakes tests." Alexander initially supported greatly reducing the number of tests students were given, but eventually agreed that the ESSA should not limit the amount of testing required (currently 17 tests per student) and instead let states decide what to do with the data collected.
Tests but no accountability plans
Alexander’s views on testing made it into the final draft of the ESSA, meaning the federal government still dictates what students are tested on (math, science, and reading standards) and when they are tested. DeVos, while frequently expressing a preference for innovative assessments, has also acknowledged that the ESSA is the education policy law of the land. Creativity is being encouraged through a months-long assessment review and proposal process for each state, but in order to qualify for federal funds, all states will have to abide by the testing schedule mandated by the ESSA.
This is a situation in flux, however, as the Senate voted in 2017 to rescind accountability rules associated with the ESSA. It is unclear exactly what this means, although it speaks to the fact that some lawmakers and observers believe the federal government should step as far out of education policy as possible. Walking back from the accountability requirements the Obama administration baked into the ESSA in November of last year (such as the insistence that schools issue data-centric report cards to the public and closely track the progress of non-native English speakers) was celebrated by some as the way to get out from under onerous federal regulations.
Is innovation and accountability possible?
Conversely, outfits such as the National Governor’s Association, a bipartisan advocacy group, have expressed continued support for test-based accountability measures, asserting that their members will "vigilantly implement" the ESSA’s regulatory provisions. They are motivated by the concern that, without federal oversight, states may slide backward in their efforts to ensure all students have equal access to a high-quality public education.
Where will Secretary of Education DeVos fall in this fast-moving policy debate? The answer remains unclear, although her belief in a less-is-more role for the federal government offers some clues.
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