The Education Department on Thursday released draft regulations outlining how states should judge which schools are succeeding and which are in need of intervention, a key point of contention, with civil rights activists on the one side and teachers unions and Republican lawmakers on the other.
Federal officials drafted the regulations to spell out in detail what states must do to comply with the Every Students Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind when it passed with bipartisan support last year.
The law requires states to continue administering standardized math and reading tests to students in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But it also gave states a new opportunity to include other non-test measures, such as access to advanced coursework and rates of chronic absenteeism, in judging schools.
Under the regulations released Thursday, states would be required to wrap all of those various indicators into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to provide parents with clear, easy-to-understand information about school performance.
Education Secretary John B. King Jr. described the proposed rules as a balance between greater flexibility for states and civil rights protections for students. The rules would “give educators room to reclaim for all of their students the joy and promise of a well-rounded educational experience,” he said.
Key Democrats, such as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), embraced the proposed rules. The Council of Chief State School Officers also reacted positively, saying the Education Department had “balanced the need for clarity and the clear intent of the law” with flexibility for states.
But key Republican leaders were skeptical and promised to conduct a thorough review to ensure that the Obama administration had honored the intent of Congress.
“I am disappointed that the draft regulation seems to include provisions that the Congress considered — and expressly rejected,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said in a statement. “If the final regulation does not implement the law the way Congress wrote it, I will introduce a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to overturn it.”
The previous education law, No Child Left Behind, prescribed sanctions for schools that failed to meet test-score targets. The Every Student Succeeds Act takes a different approach, allowing states to decide how to intervene in struggling schools as long as those interventions are “evidence-based.”
The new regulations also define what it means for subgroups of students — such as black students or low-income students — to be “consistently underperforming” and therefore in need of state intervention.
The Education Trust, an advocacy group, praised some parts of the rules but raised concerns that they fail to ensure that struggling students in struggling schools will get the help they need.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also said that the Education Department had gotten some things right. But she decried the proposed rules for how states should treat schools where large numbers of students refuse to take standardized tests.
The proposal would require states to take action against those schools by lowering their overall rating, for example, or docking their score for academic achievement.
“This doesn’t solve the issue of the misuse of testing,” Weingarten said in a statement. “It simply inflames the problem by suggesting punitive consequences for those who are so frustrated by the misuse and high-stakes nature of standardized testing that they want to opt their kids out.”
Civil rights activists argue that schools must face consequences if they fail to test the vast majority of students, or else administrators may pressure low-performing students to stay home on testing days in order to raise school scores.
The rules would also require states to create new school report cards and to include information that schools are not currently required to report: data on per-pupil expenditures; the percentage of students enrolled in preschool programs; the rate at which high school graduates go on to enroll in higher education; and the percentage of English learners who become proficient in the language.
States and schools would continue to report on the performance of students in various subgroups, including by race and socioeconomic status. But for the first time, schools would also be required to disclose the performance of homeless students, children in foster care, and children of military service members.
The Education Department is accepting public comment on the draft regulations for the next 60 days.