Federal lawmakers on Monday released the final text of a compromise bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind, including closely watched language outlining how the nation’s K-12 schools would be judged — and how struggling schools would be improved — if the legislation passes.
The bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, would largely shift authority from the federal government to states and districts, giving local officials far more power to define what it means for a school to be successful and to decide how and when to intervene in schools that persistently fail to live up to expectations.
It attempts to thread the needle between conservatives who want to shrink the federal government’s footprint in education and civil rights advocates who worry that some states, left to their own devices, will obfuscate or ignore the poor performance of schools serving low-income and minority students.
Specifically, under the Every Student Succeeds Act:
- The testing regime remains in place. States would still be required, as they are now, to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and publicly report the scores according to race, income, ethnicity, disability and whether students are English-language learners.
- States get to set their own academic goals. Where No Child Left Behind set forth one goal for the nation — 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 — the new bill would require each state to set and measure progress toward its own academic goals.
- Test scores still matter, but how much is up to the states. States would be charged with designing systems for judging schools. Each system would have to include measures of academic progress, including test scores, graduation rates and (for non-native English speakers) English language acquisition. But it would also have to include a measure of school climate, such as student engagement or access to advanced courses. All of the academic indicators together must count for “much” more than the non-academic factor, but the definition of “much” is not clear.
- What should be done in schools that are struggling will be up to states and districts. Under No Child Left Behind, a school could get dinged if just one of its subgroups failed to meet annual testing goals, and the federal government exercised a lot of say in what happened in persistently failing schools. Under the new bill, it’s likely that fewer schools will be required to be marked for interventions, and it’s up to states and, in many cases, districts to decide what to do to improve those schools. Schools marked for the most intensive interventions would be those among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state, those in which fewer than two-thirds of students graduate on time, and those in which a subgroup of students “consistently underperforms.” It’s up to each state to determine how long a group of students would have to lag before the school would be required to take action.
- What happens if lots of kids opt out of testing? Again, it’s up to the state. Under No Child Left Behind, a school automatically got a black eye if it failed to test at least 95 percent of its eligible students. The aim was to ensure that principals and teachers weren’t discouraging low performers from showing up on test day in order to boost scores. The new bill maintains the 95 percent requirement, but states can decide how participation rates should figure into their overall school rating system.
The language released Monday is based on a framework agreed to this month by a conference committee composed of lawmakers from both parties and both chambers of Congress.
There is broad support for doing away with No Child Left Behind, and the bill released Monday won endorsements from the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National PTA and the National Governors Association. The nation’s two largest teachers unions applauded the conference committee’s framework for compromise last week.
It’s a true compromise in that everyone got at least some of what they were hoping for, but no one is completely satisfied. Small-government conservatives succeeded in limiting the education secretary’s authority, but many would have liked to have gone even further. Some conservative groups are rallying against the bill, saying it does not go far enough to scale back the federal government’s role in the nation’s 100,000 public schools.
Members of the civil rights caucus succeeded in winning stronger federal protections for disadvantaged kids than existed in earlier versions of the bill that passed the House and Senate, but many of them, too, would have liked to have gone further.
Sandy Kress, a key architect of No Child Left Behind, said that it shrinks the federal government’s role too dramatically, returning the country to a time when Washington doled out dollars without any expectation that states show that the money was used to make a difference for kids.
“I don’t think this bill is going to fare well over time,” Kress said. “I think it will be seen as one of the most serious policy mistakes in the whole history of education policy in the nation.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which leads a coalition of civil rights groups that has pressed to maintain annual testing and a strong federal role in school accountability, offered no reaction to the bill’s language on Monday. “Legislative compromise comes down to details — especially with civil rights bills,” spokesman Scott Simpson wrote in an e-mail. The nation’s main federal education law “has not been reauthorized in ten-plus years and it’s important to thoughtfully consider its impact on the diverse constituencies we represent before speaking out.”
Some on the left said that the compromise released Monday is the best that they could realistically expect, given the GOP-controlled Congress. And they urged a comparison not to No Child Left Behind, but to waivers that the Education Department issued over the last five years as the law became increasingly unworkable. Some civil rights advocates argue that the waivers have allowed states to ignore schools that are failing disadvantaged kids. “We believe that what is here is better than what is happening under waivers,” one Democratic aide said.
The House is widely expected to vote on the bill as early as Thursday, with the Senate following shortly thereafter. But Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has pledged to schedule votes only on bills that have the support of the majority of his party. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Monday declined to comment on whether the majority of Republicans support the bill and didn’t say when or whether a vote would take place.
“I have the possibility of having it scheduled this week,” McCarthy said.
Mike DeBonis and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.