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Congress Considers Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind Standards


This week, members of Congress are attempting to rewrite No Child Left Behind. That's the 2001 law mandating annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three through eight and once again in high school.


Today the House narrowly passed a bill that would keep those reading and math tests. The law has many critics in both parties. And members of Congress would like to fashion a new version with less emphasis on testing and more control for state and local authorities when it comes to dealing with failing schools. But NPR's Juana Summers says those members first have to deal with disagreements of their own.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: American students spend countless hours taking tests. That means even more classroom hours are spent preparing for those tests. Schools have to show student growth or face consequences. Teachers say that time could be spent doing other more interesting and meaningful things, and many in Congress agree. A bill that passed the House this week and one making its way through the Senate would both keep the annual reading and math tests but make them less critically important. In the Senate bill, a bipartisan effort by Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray, states would get to decide how to use tests to measure school and teacher performance. Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana says that's a good thing.

BILL CASSIDY: Ideally, we're not teaching kids to take a test. We're teaching them English and math. And they take a test to assess their progress. That's not happening now.

SUMMERS: And it's not Republicans alone. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island also says classroom time is being wasted that teachers and kids should get back. If the Senate bill passes, he says there could actually be fewer tests.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The almost frantic efforts of the school to produce good test results in the tested areas will relax. And that means that they can spend more teaching time not trying to get these kids to be expert in the tests but to reach them with other issues like history or art or music.

SUMMERS: The Senate bill also takes a whack at the Common Core State Standards which many on the political right regard as overreach by the federal government. The bill prohibits the government from encouraging or requiring any specific set of academic standards. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions likes that part of the package.

JEFF SESSIONS: So I think the federal government needs to reduce its pressure on the schools. And I like the idea that the Common Core can't be mandated or intimidated - people intimidated to accept that.

SUMMERS: While the bills in the House and Senate would both loosen the law's emphasis on testing, they don't look a whole lot alike. Conservatives want to see Washington play as small a role as possible in the nation's schools. And in the bill that passed the House today, there is a provision allowing federal money to follow low income students to different public schools. So say a low income child is enrolled at a lower income school and then transfers to a more affluent one. The first school loses those funds. It's known as portability. And some Democrats say it will ruin schools in the poorest neighborhoods. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas spoke out about it on the House floor today.

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON: Portability is a ruse - one that takes resources from rather than gives to our most underserved and needy children.

SUMMERS: While the House has wrapped up its work, the Senate debate is likely to spill into next week, leaving a lot of questions about how the two parties will close the gap between them. Juana Summers, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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