In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). With this law, the federal government stepped into what had traditionally been a policy area reserved to the states: education. The law was created as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and one element of the law was to provide federal funding for the education of low income students.
Over time, Congress reauthorized and amended the original ESEA to attach certain strings to those federal dollars. By 2001, the watchwords in education were measurement and accountability. That year, Congress passed a new version of ESEA called, “No Child Left Behind.” Among other things, it instituted a system of federally mandated, annual standardized tests paired with an accountability system that measured each state’s ability to educate all of its students.
Recent developments in education reform have built on this emphasis on testing. New academic standards have been adopted throughout much of the country and teacher evaluations have been increasingly tied to student test scores. A growing opposition to standardized testing has prompted some state and federal leaders to imply that funding could be withheld from schools or states that don’t comply with federal testing mandates.
It is in this context that the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee (HELP), under the leadership of Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), set out to draft an updated version of ESEA. Since 2001, a number of failed attempts have been made to amend the law. Before a draft of a bill could leave the committee and head for the Senate floor, one key question had to be resolved: should Congress continue to require annual standardized tests for all students?