Is America Nearing the End of the No Child Left Behind Era?

A new congressional compromise would remove many of the unpopular law's more onerous provisions but would still rely on frequent testing.

While the so-called "Every Student Achieves" bipartisan bill announced this Tuesday still has significant hurdles to clear before passage, it’s certainly the closest Congress has come in nearly a decade to an agreement on the controversial education law it seeks to revise.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 50-year-old federal mechanism for funding the nation’s public schools, was due for reauthorization more than eight years ago. No Child Left Behind is the current iteration of that law.

As Education Week’s "Politics K-12" blog first reported last Friday, the compromise bill is being sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander (a Republican from Tennessee) and Patty Murray (a Democrat from Washington). While there will certainly be negotiations behind closed doors to revise key aspects, the existing language offers plenty of important signals on the new law's parameters.

The bill would require states to continue breaking down student-performance data by demographic subgroups to assess differences in proficiency among, for example, minorities, low-income children, and those with special-education status. But states would have more flexibility in how the systems used to hold schools accountable are designed, and how struggling schools would be identified and supported. (Here’s something that’s not in the current bill: Alexander dropped his controversial school-choice proposal to have federal Title I dollars, which are earmarked for the poorest kids, follow low-income students who transfer to new campuses, including charter schools.)

Annual testing of all students in grades three through eight, as well as those in grade 11—a central tenet of No Child Left Behind—would remain a requirement. That's in spite of the requests from some policymakers, including those who had argued that less-frequent testing—one assessment in elementary, middle and high school, for example—would be sufficient. But education researchers and policy analysts warned that such a shift would be a massive setback. Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, an education-reform nonprofit targeted at low-income students, warned in an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this year that such a move would result in large numbers of "invisible students" who are likely to be already-underserved minorities:

The grade-span approach would eviscerate the ability to look at particular groups of students within schools. Instead of having multiple grades over which schools could compile results, each school would be held responsible only for the performance of students in a single grade. Not only would this lower the quality of the data, but it would also raise the stakes of the tests: If you think the stakes are too high now, imagine being a fifth grader in a school where your score determines the results of the entire school.

That said, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, was disappointed the new bill didn’t cut back on the current requirements, which stipulate annual testing. "Are you going to give that third grader some relief from test and punish?" she told the New York Times after the bill was announced this week. "Under this proposal, they still have to take just as many tests." "Punish" is a particularly loaded word in the context of No Child Left Behind. The law’s requirement that states use standardized-test scores to identify their lowest-performing schools—and sanction them if improvement doesn't happen fast enough—is arguably the most contentious provision of the law.

Still, for the majority of the nation’s public schools, that’s no longer a concern. Frustrated by the slow congressional pace of No Child Left Behind's reauthorization, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, established a new option in which states could apply for waivers from key parts of the law; the process was designed as a means of motivating states to implement key reform measures such as evaluating teacher performance. Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia have such waivers, releasing them from most of No Child Left Behind’s stricter student-achievement requirements. The waivers also give states greater flexibility in allocating their federal education dollars, including money that previously had to be set aside for initiatives like tutoring and charter schools.

The bipartisan bill is headed to the Senate’s education committee next week for corrections and final changes. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the bill does tackle a sizable controversy head-on: the Common Core State Standards. These grade-level expectations for what students should know and be able to do in math and English-language arts, which as of now have been adopted by more than 40 states, began as the result of a bipartisan compact among the nation’s governors and other education stakeholders. But the standards are now widely mischaracterized by critics as a federal mandate. This is how Education Week's Lauren Camera explained Alexander and Murray's legislative handling of that key distinction.

As for standards, the bill simply outlines that states must establish "challenging academic standards for all students," and, as expected, it name-checks the Common Core State Standards and clarifies that the federal government can play no role in the process of states choosing standards.

Camera then cites the bill's summary:

The bill affirms that states decide what academic standards they will adopt, without interference from Washington. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. States will be free to decide what academic standards they will maintain in their states.

This post appears courtesy of The Educated Reporter.