Opinion: Return joy to learning by ending testing obsession

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Standardized school testing has run amok. Educators, parents, students and others who question its value for actual teaching and learning are leading a national revolt.

Here in Illinois, public concern over high-stakes testing reached a fever pitch this year. In response, State Rep. Will Guzzardi sponsored a bill this spring, HB306, that would give parents a formal way to opt out of state tests, most notably the new PARCC test. The bill passed in the House and is pending in a Senate committee.

OPINION

Congress is listening too, and the federal government may soon get out of the business of telling states like Illinois how to hold educators accountable, how to identify struggling schools, and how to determine which interventions should be used to help students thrive.

So what does this mean after years of federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and Race to the Top federal grants to states?

Both houses of Congress have passed bills to overhaul NCLB. Now lawmakers must reconcile differences between the bills before seeking President Obama’s signature. Given its content and overwhelming bipartisan support, we hope the Senate version will be the foundation for a final agreement.

The good news is that both chambers heard the cries of discontent over testing obsession and misuse. Both bills stop the Secretary of Education from closing schools or dictating teacher evaluations. They also eliminate test-and-punish policies that have narrowed curriculum but not the achievement gap.

Illinois already is taking the lead on accountability in public education with the passage of a law, signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on July 30, to diversify the way we look at school district performance. However, there’s more work to do.

The changes reflected in both the U.S. Senate and House overhauls of NCLB have real potential to return joy and flexibility to teaching and learning by reflecting a shift in federal priorities. But to make the new policies meaningful, our own state laws must also reflect that shift and allow educators and parents to partner with school leaders when developing a new system.

The key difference between the U.S. Senate and House bills is equity. Only the Senate bill, called the Every Child Achieves Act, protects Congress’ original intent to mitigate the effects of poverty by targeting resources to students most in need. The House bill would allow federal funds to be “portable” and go to schools with fewer poor students and even private schools.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, it was to help level the playing field for poor children. That need still exists, and so the Senate’s provisions are important to include in the final bill.

The overwhelming Senate vote to pass the Every Child Achieves Act was a profound and all-too-uncommon display of bipartisanship. Illinois set a great example. Both Illinois senators — Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk — voted for the bill.

We hope they continue to work in common cause and ensure that the final bill includes key Senate language to help all children, especially disadvantaged students, get a great public education.

Dan Montgomery is president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

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