Shelbyville Times-Gazette: Alexander sees possible cut in number of tests

Posted on March 18, 2011

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, are forming a task force to study ways to reduce and simplify federal education regulations, and perhaps to reduce the number of tests taken by students in order to leave more time for teaching.

Alexander and Bennet will work with the governors of their respective states -- Gov. Bill Haslam here and Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado -- and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to study the situation. Bennet said Tennessee and Colorado are "two pretty progressive states when it comes to education reform."

Alexander is a former U.S. Secretary of Education, while Bennet is a former Denver, Colo., school superintendent. In a teleconference Thursday with reporters, they said that there are many problems surrounding education rules and regulations. There are problems in the way state rules interact with federal rules.

Bennet said that when he was school superintendent in Denver, he had to go through many hoops to use federal Title I funds -- then, when he arrived in Washington as a Senator, he was assured by federal officials that Title I funds could be used in a variety of ways.

In some cases, said Bennet, state governments have gone farther than federal regulators intended in applying guidelines to programs like Title I.

"We've overinterpreted the rule," said Bennet.

Bedford County School Superintendent Ed Gray told the Times-Gazette that Bennet's interpretation of Title I is quite correct -- the rules vary widely from state to state over what Title I can be used for.

In some cases, Bennet said, there's even a "mythology" about what the federal regulations require.

Gray said that in some cases, federal regulations conflict with each other. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires a special educational plan for students with learning disabilities, and doesn't even mention grade levels, while No Child Left Behind insists that such a child be tested against the normal standards for his or her age group.

"That's not fair to those kids," said Gray.

Alexander recalled that, when he was governor of Tennessee, he once had a bet with the education secretary at that time, William Bennett, over whether there were more state regulations or more federal regulations on education. Alexander lost the bet; there were more state regulations.

Another problem has been layers of administratively-imposed testing on top of the normal classroom testing which teachers must do as a course of their normal business. Alexander said the task force will attempt to get input from local educators on which tests are useful and necessary and which tests are redundant. Bennet said that government regulations in recent years have had the impact of "disempowering" the teachers who are closest to the educational process.

But tests will still be used to measure teacher success in education.

"The goal is still to have accountability for teachers," said Alexander.

Eliminating unneeded or redundant tests could free up more time for subjects which some have complained get short shrift in today's school systems. Bennet mentioned the need for more arts education, while Alexander supports more teaching of U.S. history.

The senators said there is bipartisan agreement on the need to address problems in the federal regulations collectively known as "No Child Left Behind." Alexander praised Duncan for his bipartisan approach and President Obama for supporting charter schools and teacher accountability.

Gray said both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind, which need to be reauthorized by Congress, "need tweaking in several different areas."