As Congress contemplates rewriting No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's signature education law, legislators will tussle over a vision of how the federal government should hold states and schools accountable for students' academic progress.
At a Senate education committee hearing on Thursday to discuss waivers to states on some provisions of the law, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, forcefully urged the federal government to get out of the way.
"We only give you 10 percent of your money," said Mr. Alexander, pressing John B. King Jr., the education commissioner for New York State. "Why do I have to come from the mountains of Tennessee to tell New York that's good for you?"
Dr. King argued that the federal government needed to set "a few clear, bright-line parameters" to protect students, especially vulnerable groups among the poor, minorities and the disabled.
"It's important to set the right floor around accountability," Dr. King said.
Despite repeated efforts over the last five years, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Act, the law that governs all public schools that receive federal financing. The No Child version, passed in 2001, provoked controversy by holding schools responsible for student performance on standardized tests, dubbing schools that do not meet targets failures and requiring strict interventions like the replacement of a school's entire teaching staff.
Since early last year, the Obama administration has granted waivers to 34 states and the District of Columbia, relieving them from what many argued was the law's most unrealistic goal: making all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. In exchange, the administration has demanded that the states raise curriculum standards and develop rigorous teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance on standardized tests.
Critics have argued that the Obama administration has been too prescriptive in these waiver requirements, and that a new education law should leave most decisions about schooling up to states and districts.
Dictating education policy from Washington can engender unintended consequences. At the Senate hearing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that 19 states had "dummied down standards" under the No Child Left Behind law. Critics also say the law has compelled educators to teach to the tests and set off a spate of cheating scandals.
In addition, huge gaps remain between the performance of poor and minority children and more affluent and white children. And while some states have raised scores on reading and math tests, others have shown little progress.
"Even with the rigor of No Child Left Behind, the difference in improvement by the states is vast," said John E. Chubb, the interim chief executive of Education Sectors, a nonpartisan policy group. "The federal government has not found the right tools as yet."
In one respect, the Obama administration's waivers have actually loosened federal pressure by allowing schools to show that students are improving over time rather than requiring that they all hit an absolute benchmark.
In testimony before the Senate committee, Mr. Duncan said the waivers encouraged states to experiment and use other measures of progress, like graduation rates.
"The federal government does not serve as a national school board," Mr. Duncan said. "It never has, and it never should."
Still, spurred by efforts to qualify for the waivers and the administration's Race to the Top grant program, 31 states now require that teacher evaluations be based in part on growth in student achievement on standardized tests, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Critics have complained that the policies have exacerbated the reliance on test results.
"We've tried testing again and again, and it hasn't worked," said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle and a leader of a group of teachers who are boycotting a test typically given in January. "It doesn't cultivate the type of thinking we need, and it doesn't bring in the resources that we need to make students successful."
Senator Alexander, who as governor of Tennessee helped push through an early version of performance-based pay for teachers partly linked to student test scores, said the current federal push threatened to create more opposition to testing.
"Many superintendents and schools think that they are being forced to bite off more than they can chew," Mr. Alexander said in an interview on Friday. "There's this view that somehow you become smarter and more compassionate about children and education if you buy an airplane ticket to Washington."
The Senate education committee passed a bill in the fall of 2011, but it has not come up for a vote in the full Senate. The committee chairman, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, helped shepherd a bipartisan version that did not require schools to evaluate teachers based on test scores.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Harkin said he would support requiring such evaluations, as long as other measures, like principal observations or student surveys, were included. "We need some standards out there that are national in scope," he said.
Mr. Harkin's home state has so far failed to secure a federal waiver because it does not impose teacher evaluations on districts. Jason Glass, the director of the Iowa Education Department, said the Legislature was considering a bill that would permit such mandates. But, he said, "the criticisms that the federal government may be overreaching here in imposing this on states is a legitimate question."
Some education officials say it is only fair that the federal government hold them accountable.
"We take taxpayer money and convert most of it into salaries and benefits," said John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. "The quid pro quo for that sacred trust is that we guarantee that we will graduate students college and career-force ready."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.