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As ESEA Turns 50, the Fate of Our Most Vulnerable Students Hangs in the Balance

An important part of the answer of why we test is this: to provide useful data for teachers about students' progress. I use data from my students' assessments to inform and improve my instruction so that my students learn more, and so that, in turn, I grow as a professional.
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By Casie Jones

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), there is no question that assessment has become the hot topic. With Congress looking to amend ESEA -- Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) introduced a bipartisan revision of the law, the Every Child Achieves Act, on April 7 -- the debate around assessment finds more fuel from all sides. Some people are deliberating over "to test or not to test," while others focus on how often we test. What we need to turn our attention to is why we are testing. Unfortunately, the ESEA amendment addresses how often, but it ignores the why -- and this will become an injustice to our students.

An important part of the answer of why we test is this: to provide useful data for teachers about students' progress. I use data from my students' assessments to inform and improve my instruction so that my students learn more, and so that, in turn, I grow as a professional.

After 12 years of teaching, I am finally able to understand the larger purpose of testing and how it should be applied. Assessment should be a subtle, ongoing process used to measure teacher efficacy and student skill level. The results should be used not as a punitive measure for teachers or students but as an informative platform for both to understand what steps are needed to reach the next level of learning. And the best part? Assessment should be designed as a learning tool. Students should glean new information from an assessment while demonstrating what they currently can do.

Notice that I said what they can do not what they know. The paradigm shift in education is that we should teach skills over content. Skill-based standards such as the Common Core State Standards focus on the actions or skills students should be able to do to be college- or career-ready. They do not specify lists of dates, definitions, or pieces of information to be stored for later. However, if we are going to teach skill-based instruction, we need skill-based assessments. As a positive step toward meaningful assessment, our recent shift toward Common Core led to state initiatives to improve standardized assessments. The critical issue now at stake is this: What do we do with the data that the states report?

To increase equity for all students, the 2001 ESEA revision known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created a set of strict criteria that states had to adhere to in order to receive funding. This increased the use of standardized assessments as efficacy measures, and the federal government had substantial control over education at the state level. The current proposed amendment, however, swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Though I am grateful that testing and reporting data are still emphasized in the proposed Every Child Achieves Act, the lack of accountability for how states use that data to improve schools is dangerous, especially for our lowest-performing schools.

The proposed ESEA revision requires states to demonstrate higher college- and career-ready standards, but the assurance that disadvantaged students receive the extra help that they need is not present in the language. What this translates into is that states will not have to provide extra support or ensure that interventions are available to help students in low-performing schools such as the alternative urban schools where I work. They do not have to assure resource equity for high-poverty schools, and current provisions that have a disproportionately negative impact on schools with large numbers of poor students will continue. At this point, it does not matter what rigorous standards the states adopted. If the data are not used to compare student performance and require action, the guardrail to ensure that low-performing students are receiving more intervention and resources is no longer there.

In addition to the lack of accountability, relinquishing all control back to the states also creates a patchwork of what student achievement and teacher efficacy look like. When assessment data are not used to evaluate the quality of teaching or used to determine which students need more support, then the purpose of assessment is void.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, the 1965 ESEA intended to provide an equitable, not just an equal, education for all students -- in effect, to make sure every child achieves. At the mark of the 50th anniversary, we cannot step backwards from the heart of this pivotal legislation. We must remember why we assess students and the importance of holding all states accountable for offering the best learning opportunities to every child. That would be the best way to honor the original ESEA and make sure the proposed Every Child Achieves lives up to its name.

Casie Jones, an alumna of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship program, is an instructional coach for Shelby County Alternative Schools.

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