Members of Congress, education leaders and students applaud as President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2015, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There are some people who insist on rejecting the reality that No Child Left Behind was in many ways destructive to America’s public schools, but the evidence is pretty clear that the federal K-12 education law from 2002 to 2015 led to harmful practices, including an obsession with standardized tests that narrowed curriculum in schools and unfairly evaluated students, teachers, schools and principals.

In late 2015, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the NCLB successor law that gave states some flexibility about how they could devise systems that would hold districts accountable for meeting student performance requirements in ESSA.

So what are states doing? Are they taking advantage of that flexibility to back away from the worst parts of No Child Left Behind?

Each state plan must be approved by the U.S. Education Department, and so far 33 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have seen their blueprints approved. Democrats in the Senate have expressed concern about the approvals, saying that the department is giving states a pass to do what they what — regardless of whether the accountability plans comply with ESSA. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), head of the Senate Education Committee, has praised the department in this regard.

In this post, Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the abuse of standardized tests, analyzes the first 16 state plans that were approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

By Monty Neill

Have states taken advantage of the new federal education law’s flexibility on accountability to overcome the destructive legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

A just-completed review of the first 16 approved state Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing shows limited progress.

Most positively, 10 of the 16 states abandoned NCLB’s failed test-and-punish policies, such as firing staff or closing or privatizing schools for low standardized exam scores. On the other hand, states have not taken sufficient advantage of ESSA’s opportunities to improve assessment and accountability. If every state adopted the best practices pioneered by some jurisdictions, U.S. public schools could make faster progress toward developing helpful, not harmful, accountability systems.

The FairTest analysis examined five basic components of state ESSA plans and considered three other related issues. You can find additional detail and recommendations in our report and state-by-state chart, available here and below.

Here are findings from a review of these states: Arizona, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont.

1) States have selected a narrow range of school quality/student success indicators, many of which are standardized test scores.

States should develop a richer array of indicators. A few states include factors such as adequate funding, school climate, student or parent engagement, reductions in punitive discipline, access to a well-rounded curriculum, and access to resources such as counselors, librarians and wraparound services for students and families.

2) Most states give much less weight to school quality/student success than they should. Combined with the narrow range of indicators, this means states remain too heavily focused on reading/English language arts and math test scores. As a result, schools will continue to feel pressure to focus on test preparation, to the detriment of a richer education.

States should increase the weight of school quality/student success indicators, such as those listed above, to at least 40 percent, as a few states have done, in addition to broadening the indicators. (ESSA requires that non-school quality/student success indicators should have “significantly” greater weighting than school quality/student success indicators.)

3) Many states have created school ranking categories or levels beyond the three required by ESSA. The required categories are schools in need of comprehensive (schoolwide) support and improvement (CSI), those in need of targeted (to groups of students) support and improvement (TSI), and all others. Of the 16 states, six require only three levels, three have four levels, and six use five levels. (Most states using five levels rank schools with a letter grade of A through F.) Levels will perpetuate unhealthy competition because the primary factor for determining a school’s level remains standardized tests. Schools may focus narrowly on boosting test scores to “beat” other schools, thereby undermining a richer curriculum.

States with more than three levels should cut back to just three.

4) Six of the 16 states retain some of NCLB’s punitive sanctions, though most of them do so only if initial improvement efforts have not succeeded after about three years — which is too short a time span. The remaining 10 states plan to provide assistance to struggling schools. If that is unsuccessful, they will increase the assistance, rather than impose punishments, as NCLB required. This is the most positive finding from FairTest’s review.

States should abandon punitive NCLB mandates. If after six years serious problems remain, states should determine why they persist and intervene appropriately.

5) Some states attach punitive consequences to ESSA’s requirement that schools test 95 percent of their students with federally mandated state exams. The U.S. Department of Education expects states to factor participation into state plans and school ratings. This means a good school could be put in a lower level, even identified at different levels of needing improvement (CSI or TSI), if more than 5 percent of students opt out of testing. Further, 14 of the 16 states mandate additional actions. In eight, it means only a plan to improve participation or some unspecified intervention. But in six the state will do such things as lower a school’s ranking by a level, even if it has already dropped once due to insufficient participation. This goes beyond ESSA requirements and punishes schools for the actions of parents.

States should do no more than report the 95 percent participation rate. They should not penalize schools placed in lower levels because of opt-out percentages. Louisiana plans no further actions. New York and New Jersey will calculate average scores based only on actual test takers and use that data in deciding support and interventions. Colorado and Utah are also seeking to be non-punitive. (New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Utah have had strong opt-out movements.)

6) New Hampshire intends to rely heavily on performance assessments, expanding a pilot project in which local assessments can be used instead of state tests in all but three grades. (See “Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill,” at http://www.fairtest.org/assessment-matters-constructing-model-state-system.) Other states may choose to go this route via ESSA’s Innovative Assessment pilot.

States should prepare for participation in ESSA’s Innovative Assessment pilot and encourage districts to implement teacher-led performance assessing.

7) States do not go beyond ESSA’s requirement to report school finance data, including per-student expenditures, to say what they will do if funding is inadequate. The reporting will shed light on inadequate resources, a fundamental problem for many schools. However, states are not required to do anything substantive with this information. Failure to address this problem leaves states off the hook for funding equity and adequacy.

States should go beyond ESSA requirements to mandate that funding data be included in a school’s needs assessment and that states commit to addressing inadequate funding.

8) State plans are insufficiently complete about how they will tally standardized exam volumes and track consequences. ESSA requires reporting on what standardized tests states, districts and schools administer. It also authorizes use of its funds to conduct state and district audits of the amount of testing.

States should conduct audits and monitor districts and schools to ensure they publicly report all standardized tests they administer.

FairTest’s analysis concludes that education policymakers as well as reform advocates should model their own plans on elements of other states’ federally approved plans that take advantage of ESSA flexibility.

States should adopt a rich array of indicators, minimize the use of test scores, then weight school quality/student success indicators at 40 percent or more. They can sort schools into just three levels. They can include funding adequacy in needs assessments, then move their state to provide sufficient resources to all schools. States can drop punitive sanctions and focus on genuine assistance. States can also refuse to add penalties for low test participation.

Some states may be reluctant to take these steps. In that case, advocates, from parent and community organizations to unions and professional associations, will need to exert pressure to win meaningful assessment reforms.

State ESSA Plans Report on Scribd