By Monty Neill
This week Congress takes up overhaul of “No Child Left Behind,” the widely despised federal law that brought a tsunami of testing down on public schools. Beginning Tuesday, July 7, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to debate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, now named No Child Left Behind, NCLB). The House is expected to take up its own proposal (H.R. 5) later this month.
Overall, the Senate’s “Every Child Achieves Act” (ECAA, S. 1177) makes significant assessment reform progress. It largely returns control over accountability to the states. It allows states to choose whether to use student test scores to judge teachers. It provides some flexibility in assessment. However, the Senate proposal fails to scale back mandated testing – pending a vote on an amendment that would allow states to test once each in elementary, middle and high school.
Here are some specifics:
The Senate bill and the House bill remove the destructive NCLB mandate that every school make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on student test scores or face escalating sanctions, such as replacing staff or being closed down. The Senate bill requires states to intervene in an unspecified number of schools that are “low performing.” Each state would design its own accountability system, which would include student test scores, graduation rates, and at least one other indicator selected by the state. States would decide how much weight to assign each component and the balance between assistance and sanctions.
Unfortunately, ECAA and the House bill continue the harmful NCLB mandate requiring states to test every year in grades 3-8 and once in 10-12 in reading and math. The 1994 ESEA required states to test once each in reading and math in elementary, middle and high school (“grade spans”). Sen. Jon Tester (D – Montana) will offer an amendment to return to grade span testing.
On the positive side, ECAA authorizes an “innovation” program to which up to five states can apply in the new law’s first three years, and more thereafter. It would allow states to build systems focused on portfolios and projects that could replace statewide exams for accountability purposes. The systems could include locally designed assessments that vary across schools and districts, provided they produce comparable results across the state. The bill also explicitly allows all states to incorporate performance assessments. ECAA continues to require the release of scores by demographic group.
In granting NCLB waivers, the Obama administration required states to evaluate teachers and principals “in significant part” based on student standardized test scores. The Senate and House bills both end that ill-conceived mandate. Instead, if a state chooses to use its ESEA Title II funds to evaluate educators (rather than on other authorized uses such as professional development), it must include student test scores. On the other hand, the Senate bill includes a voluntary competitive grant program that would require participating states to implement “merit pay” based on student test scores.
Federal law has always been silent on the issue of opting out. The Senate bill recognizes parent rights to opt their children out of federally-required testing if state or district law allows it.
Both Senate and House bills restrict the secretary of education’s authority over standards, assessments and accountability. They would bar the Department of Education from rewriting the law with new mandates via waivers, as the education secretary has done.
Taken as a whole package, the Senate bill ends federal accountability micro-managing, makes use of student scores to evaluate teachers an option, allows some states to design performance assessment systems, and recognizes parent opt-out rights. Repealing most of the pernicious testing and accountability provisions of NCLB would be real progress for the nation’s students, teachers and schools.
Supporting the Senate ECAA bill, particularly if Sen. Tester’s amendment is adopted and no counter-productive amendments are added, will consolidate gains and pave the way for more assessment reform victories at the federal, state and district levels. Rejection means living with NCLB and its waivers for at least two more years, maybe much longer.
Overhauling NCLB is one major battle in a protracted campaign to end test misuse and overuse. It is a necessary step toward the greater changes needed to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.
(Correcting number of Senate bill from 1117 to 1177).