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Washington lawmakers focus on rewriting education rules

Few images have been featured as prominently at public education protests than Andrew M. Cuomo’s face.

His headshot, looking grim and unsmiling, has been pasted to placards, projected on slide shows and affixed to billboards.

But it’s not just Cuomo they’re fighting. And it’s not just in New York.

Education policies of President George W. Bush – and, after him, Barack Obama – that have reshaped schools during the last 14 years have culminated in a wave of discontent with the federal government’s reach into classrooms across the country. Unhappiness over standardized tests, teacher evaluations and new learning standards all pushed by the U.S. Department of Education have united unlikely factions in states as diverse as New York, New Mexico and Oregon in organizing testing boycotts and pressing for changes to federal rules.

Congress has taken notice. Debate that had been stalled for eight years over rewriting federal education law finally broke free this month with a bipartisan agreement in a key Senate committee to roll back some of the punishments for schools tied to federal testing requirements.

“The reason federal legislators have made this a high priority is because their constituents in hometown America, Buffalo and elsewhere, have made it clear that they’re fed up with current testing policy and demanding change,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, a national organization that advocates for less standardized testing.

As tens of thousands of New York children sat out the state math and English tests this month, negotiations were taking place in Washington on the very law that began all this testing: No Child Left Behind.

What federal lawmakers decide over the next few months could shape how the protests over what’s happening in classrooms in Western New York play out.

While the current Senate proposal to remake No Child Left Behind wouldn’t reduce the number of required standardized tests, it would give New York and other states more power to decide how to measure which schools aren’t performing well and how to fix them.

The proposal also would peel back federal penalties for schools where test scores didn’t show adequate yearly progress and make clear that the federal government does not require teacher evaluations.

For many educators, any talk of rewriting No Child Left Behind is long overdue. Congress hasn’t touched the law since 2007, and provisions of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative that encouraged states to adopt the same learning standards and to link teacher evaluations to test scores have heightened anxiety of the federal role in schools.

“It’s pretty generally understood and accepted that the No Child Left Behind Act sounded good and politicians all loved it. Who would talk against no child being left behind?” said Wendy Paterson, dean of the School of Education at SUNY Buffalo State. “But in practice, if we are to follow what the federal government suggests we do and look at the end results, the No Child Left Behind Act was an abysmal failure.”

The law, enacted in 2001, brought a wave of new federal oversight of local classrooms, requiring states to test students 17 times between third grade and graduation and holding schools that didn’t show improvements in test scores accountable with a complex system of carrots and sticks.

No Child Left Behind envisioned all students would be proficient in math and English by 2014. Instead, in 2014, more difficult tests aligned to new learning standards showed more than three out of every five children in third through eighth grade in New York were reading or doing math below grade level.

The adoption of new learning standards, known as the Common Core, was also inspired by federal policies. New York was one of dozens of states encouraged to adopt the new standards and create a teacher evaluation system by federal Race to the Top grant money.

This year, New York State is at the forefront of a testing boycott that has spread to other states. As of Friday, organizers of a testing “opt out” movement had tallied more than 190,000 students who had refused to take New York’s English assessment given to third- through eighth-graders this month. They were still compiling statewide estimates for the math exam.

Concern over testing – relegated to just a few thousand protesters two years ago – has been fueled this year by the New York State United Teachers union, which urged parents to tell their children not to take the tests after Cuomo pushed through a new teacher evaluation system that increases the importance of student test scores in rating educators.

“New York is the peak of the movement right now, but there has been strong opposition across the nation in a bipartisan way,” Schaeffer said. “Liberals and libertarians, progressive educators and anti-Common Core tea party activists all agree that testing overuse and misuse needs to be rolled back.”

Not everyone agrees, however, on how that should be done. Senators working to craft the bipartisan agreement on rewriting federal education law this month stripped all but the least controversial amendments to their proposal. The House has yet to agree on a plan.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, said lawmakers have increasingly heard from citizens anxious about the impact of tests.

“It’s been overwhelming, the people that have reached out,” said Reed, who plans to introduce legislation that would prevent the federal government from withholding money from school districts where children opted out of tests. “Moms, fathers, bringing their children to the office and having conversations about the stress and what this is doing to them on a day-to-day basis in school. That obviously weighs heavily on my mind.”

Longtime educators who have seen the use of standardized tests in schools evolve through the years say giving students the same tests across school districts isn’t the problem. It’s the way federal and state laws require them to be used, as well as and secrecy surrounding the New York State assessments, which are developed by a private contractor, Pearson.

“The basic notion of good curriculum, good teaching and assessment is fundamental to teaching,” said Linda Cimusz, chief academic officer at Buffalo Public Schools and former assistant superintendent for instruction in Williamsville. “It’s just what happened with it that has kind of ruined that notion.”

In New York, for example, half of the state math and English tests are kept secret. Because of the way the state develops and administers the tests, only a portion of the questions are made public. When they are finally released, it’s months after the tests are given. Although teachers don’t see the full exams their own students take, student test scores are used to measure whether teachers are effective and schools are succeeding.

“They’ve tainted the educational purpose by using them for other purposes,” Cimusz said. “One of the three tenets of Race to the Top is: use the data to make instructional decisions. Then you give a test that you can’t see. You can’t determine its value. You can’t use it for an educational purpose, but you can use it to label teachers and schools. Of course it’s going to get a bad rap.”

Paul Hashem, a retired superintendent who led Lackawanna and Frontier schools, said most teachers want to know whether their students are keeping up and whether their classroom techniques are working. But as a superintendent, he worried that stringent testing requirements with a one-size-fits-all approach didn’t accurately measure how new immigrants who didn’t speak English or students with disabilities were doing.

Many educators also question whether the punitive measures for schools and teachers now tied to testing have worked.

“What I do know is that it’s been here for a while, with the punitive results or actions, and look at Buffalo,” Hashem said. “Has there been much change? And the answer is no. It hasn’t made much difference. It’s a sticky wicket for me.”

Federal testing requirements over last 14 years have also changed classrooms in ways lawmakers may never have foreseen.

Paterson, the SUNY Buffalo State dean, recalled her first days as a fourth-grade teacher. She viewed that age level – children who had grown more mature and were growing into their own – as among the best to teach. But today’s fourth-graders are required to take English, math and science standardized tests.

“Fourth grade now is the last assignment that you want as a teacher, because it’s so loaded with those tests,” Paterson said. “Those are some of the realities that people don’t see. You actually changed the culture in ways that you’ve never intended.”

The state’s standardized tests, she said, don’t give teachers diagnostic feedback that they can use to help students in the days immediately after the tests are given.

While the tests have successfully highlighted difficult achievement gaps between demographics of students, they have not closed them.

“What was claimed for all of this testing isn’t really what you got,” Paterson said. “So if what we were trying to do is improve student achievement, what we really needed to focus on was helping teachers in their classrooms ... to take greater advantage of instructional practices that are shown to be more effective – to have support, to have multiple professionals, wraparound services in a school, all kinds of things that actually have an on-the-ground impact for particular schools and for particular kids.”

The Senate proposal for changing federal education law would give more power back to states to determine how to measure schools and teachers. But it would not compel New York to change the education reforms it has worked toward during the last five years.

“New York State could say, we’re doing exactly what we’re doing now,” Cimusz said. “Or they could look at it as an opportunity to really reflect and change how they’re doing things.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com