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By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If it’s springtime, it must be standardized testing time in schools across the country.

It’s also when the debate over whether students are inundated with too many tests becomes hot.

Experts say testing is up. Parents who want their children to skip the tests say their ranks are growing. Lawmakers say they’re hearing a loud message about too much unnecessary testing.

The Common Core, a set of tougher classroom standards adopted by more than 40 states, has further inflamed the critics.

But new legislation might change the school testing landscape.

Congress will debate education this spring as lawmakers attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law spelling out the federal role in public education. Passed in 2002, it mandated annual testing and attached severe consequences for schools whose test scores didn’t show enough progress.

A bipartisan agreement in the Senate on its update of the education bill might reduce the pressure to test. It gives states, not Washington, the job of ensuring that schools are doing good work and deciding what to do about those that aren’t.

The legislation “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

That’s still down the road. What’s new this year is that for the first time most states are using new computer-based tests that require more critical thinking.

What’s not are the complaints. Some parents worry that schools base their lesson plans on what the tests focus on. Poor test-takers are at a disadvantage. Critics say too much money is spent on testing. The consequences of failure can mean closed schools, lost jobs, and an impact on student progress.

“We need fewer, better, and fairer assessments,” Susie Morrison, chief education officer and deputy superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education, said at a recent meeting of state school officials in Washington.

Parents deserve to know how their children are doing, she said. Tests also are needed to help reduce the large numbers of students who graduate from high school but need remedial classes before college.

But not all tests are equally valuable, she said: “Some assessments used by local districts can and should go away, in our opinion.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to maintain the federal role of holding schools accountable for student growth through annual tests, nonetheless has said that students, parents, and teachers have a legitimate complaint where there’s too much testing or test preparation.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were required to show “adequate yearly progress” or face outside intervention, which could result in school takeovers.

Waivers from the law’s requirements under the Obama administration came with conditions that schools base teacher evaluations partly on test scores.

“There’s always been a group of parents that don’t like testing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research center. “I think the reason it’s been brought to a rapid boil lately is because of these teacher evaluations.”

Tests that states require to measure progress in math and reading cover about 20 percent of teachers, Petrilli said. Many states have standardized tests in other subjects so that all teachers can be evaluated by the results.

“It’s not just the assessments that they actually take as part of the state assessment program, it’s the constant benchmarking and practice tests that take up a significant amount of students’ time,” said Scott Placek, president of the Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network, a coalition of parents and attorneys that supports parents who don’t want their children to take the tests.

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee recommended ways to alleviate what it called the testing burden on the district level. It also found that the state had reduced the number of required end-of-course tests from ten to three in the past five years and had eliminated other state-required assessments.

Texas and Virginia passed laws that reduced the number of state-required tests.

In Florida, Rosemarie Jensen of Parkland, one of the national administrators of the United Opt Out movement, a group that opposes “test-centric educational practices,” said she’d seen big growth in the last year in the number of parents nationwide who’d been organizing in opposition to the tests and keeping their children from taking them.

In Florida, such groups have grown from a few to 26 this year. A map by Jensen’s group pinpoints parents who report they’ve refused to let their children take the tests. It shows them scattered nationwide.

“This is not a valid way to measure an entire child,” said Jensen, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who’s the mother of two high school students. “None of this has anything to do with better education. This is about a lot of money being made on these tests, and on using the tests to grade schools and turn them over to charters and firing teachers and impacting their pay.”

In her own family, Jensen said, her son, a ninth-grader, is a good student but a poor test-taker. Her daughter, a senior, does well on tests.

“Her test scores can mask some not-so-good teachers,” she said. “My son’s make his teachers look bad, and they work so hard with him. That’s not fair.”

Debbie Veney, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on students of color and those from low-income families, said too many tests were redundant, not aligned to standards, or just not useful.

“However, are tests necessary? Absolutely,” she said. “We believe it’s not enough to simply see what performance levels are. You’ve got to be able to do something when performance levels aren’t where they need to be.”

Stu Silberman, a former school superintendent who’s executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit group of advocates in Kentucky, said school districts must find a balance so that they could be accountable to the public without testing too much.

Silberman said he was a big believer in the informal tests teachers used all the time to see how students were doing, such as quizzes. These kinds of checks give teachers the clues they need to plan their lessons, he said.

But when tests get too formal, and too frequent, he said, “then it starts to feel like we’re doing too much.”

Photo: NCinDC via Flickr

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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