If Wednesday’s feisty Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions hearing was any indication, then there’s one issue that most insiders agree is likely to move forward in Washington this year: education. In particular, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – currently know as No Child Left Behind – is up for reauthorization. Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline MORE (R-Tenn.), the one-time Secretary of Education, has made it clear he believes the law is broken and that his first priority is to fix it. For sure, he deserves credit for seeking a solution so elusive to policymakers for more than a decade.

But even before this hearing, the president, Senate Democrats, teachers unions and civil rights groups very publicly released their – often competing - priorities for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. Lost in that political theater and the polemic debates over lightening rod issues such as testing and teacher evaluations is a nonpartisan and enduring principle: that all American students deserve access to a quality education. They need help. Not political posturing. And that’s why the politics of yesterday's hearing has to be replaced by thoughtful nuance, cold hard data, and facts.

ADVERTISEMENT

As assistant secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, I was charged with negotiating a reauthorization with Capitol Hill when the law first came due for updating.  It wasn’t an easy sell then, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to accomplish during the past seven years. While I trust that most elected officials believe they have students’ best interests at heart, the issue is more often debated in terms of making life easier for adults (politicians and regulators), not making it better for children.

What’s lost in this debate, and what was on full display at Wednesday’s hearing, is a reality that everyone across the board can agree on. The ESEA, fifty years old this year, has at its heart the premise that to help disadvantaged students, the Federal government subsidizes states’ education efforts, and accepts the responsibility for ensuring that we all set high expectations. It’s that responsibility that fires so much of the political debate: how exactly should the Feds set about making sure that all children have access to the same high-quality education? How should it measure those outcomes and how should it keep states accountable? How much of this is a federal responsibility versus a state one? Fundamentally, how can we make sure we get value for money?

Testing is the answer. And it’s emerging as the primary issue permeating this debate. The president and Democrats (generally) argue that testing should occur annually, like clockwork. Many education advocates argue that it should be less regular because of the disruption it causes in the classroom.  Alexander proposed two options in his discussion draft – leaving testing as is or leaving it to the states – acknowledging that this is the crux of the debate.

They are all right. And, indeed, for the wrong reasons.  The right reasons should be obvious.  As Dr. West testified at this Wednesday’s hearing: “eliminating standardized testing would eliminate the ability to monitor certain student subgroups, empower parents to track their school, and create accountability systems for schools.”  And Wade Henderson of the Leadership Council and Civil and Human Rights eloquently explained why that is so important – before we started testing annually, we were able to gloss over the problems.  Special education students not learning? Just ignore them.  Minority kids falling further and further behind?  That’s ok, the kids at the top are doing better.

Testing, and regularity in testing, is so important because it provides the benchmark, the driver to ensure that our educational system is working.  If NCLB did anything right it was establishing that annual assessments and the disaggregated data they foster were non-negotiable. And yet the current system is clearly unworkable – the vast majority of states have sought (and been granted) waivers, essentially making parts of the policy unworkable. The reality is that testing is vital – it’s not a states’ rights issue or even a teacher’s rights policy – it’s a question of reliability. We need sound data to assess which students, schools, states and districts are performing well and target resources to help those that aren’t.

From years of experience at every level of education governance, we remain convinced that the sound data required to underpin this law cannot be attained by anything less than annual testing. Ironically, it’s the annual testing and the data it yields that will best allow the very policymakers who argue against it to achieve their goals: state and local level decisions with accountability for Federal dollars spent and equipping parents with the information they need to make informed choices about what schools will best serve their children. That’s not a contradiction, it’s a truth: regular, annual testing is a major plank of ensuring high quality – across the nation. It is the very essence of accountability. And that, no matter what anyone on Capitol Hill says, is the most important thing.

Halaska is a former assistant secretary of Education and founder of HCM Strategists.