Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions debated legislation to reform the highly flawed Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation includes an innovative program developed by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would allow schools to move away from standardized testing, broaden the curriculum and allow educators to focus on the critical thinking and teamwork skills that are vital in the 21st century economy.
Sanders’ provision would create a demonstration program that would allow a state or consortium of states to implement a student assessment system that would move away from standardized tests, and toward task-based assessments that require students to demonstrate the ability to use course content in innovative ways. Standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind have narrowed the curriculum and constrained educators who feel they must “teach to the test.” The approach advocated in Sanders’ legislation would expand the curriculum and allow educators the flexibility to provide a comprehensive education.
Vermont is eager to pursue this approach. The state applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind rules in 2012 that would have allowed the implementation of this system for all Vermont students. While this application was denied, Sanders believes it represents yet another instance where Vermont has led the nation in terms of developing innovative and progressive solutions to policy problems.
Sanders also worked to ensure small, rural states like Vermont can effectively compete for the Education Department’s competitive grant programs like "Race to the Top." This program has distributed more than $4.5 billion over the last three years, the majority of which has gone to states with large cities. Sanders secured language in the bill that would require competitive grants to be distributed to states of all sizes and geographic make-ups, with a preference for rural areas.
Sanders also worked to fix a loophole that excluded Vermont schools from receiving federal funds designed to help rural school districts. As a result, an additional $1.5 million in federal funding will go to the most rural school districts in Vermont.
Further, this legislation ends the practice of labeling schools as “failing” and gets rid of the highly flawed “Adequate Yearly Progress” requirement that has forced highly successful Vermont schools to endure punitive, federally-mandated measures. Additionally, the bill would require all states to adopt rigorous standards for students, and ensure schools provide the highest quality education for all students, including those who are poor, struggling with English as a second language, or are students with disabilities.