After Obama Win, What Next for NCLB?

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, December 2008

President-elect Barack Obama‘s administration and Congress face serious economic and international crises, so it is unclear how fast they will attend to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now known as "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB). Most observers say reauthorization will not be completed until 2010. The content of the new law will depend to a great extent on the capacity of grassroots activists and national organizations to push for a thorough, positive overhaul.

The deep divisions that prevented reauthorization in 2008 remain. Obama's campaign proposals on NCLB were brief and vague (See FairTest website: His key advisors differ profoundly on major issues, including the use of performance assessments, "merit pay," and accountability requirements. It is also unclear how much Obama will be directly involved, or how much he will delegate to others.

Obama has appointed Chicago's Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan has called for more flexibility in NCLB, but in Chicago supported high-stakes testing for students and schools (see report on Chicago co-authored by FairTest, Who is named Deputy Secretary, the Assistant Secretaries, and key White House advisors also will be critical to how the Obama administration approaches reauthorization.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward Kennedy plans to continue as chair of the Health, Labor, Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee. In the House, fewer Republican representatives mean Democrats could more readily pass a bill that moves further from the current law on key issues. However, the more closely divided Senate may not approve such changes.

Grassroots activists and educators, as well as organizations at the local, state and national levels, should certainly push for relief from of the harmful components of NCLB. At the same time, they should support a beneficial approach to educational improvement and equity, such as the Joint Organizational Statement on NLCB. (The Statement has been signed by nearly 150 national education, civil rights and other organizations.)

Unfortunately, NCLB proponents can now wage a defensive campaign, working to slow down reauthorization to retain the current law as long as possible. This may force those seeking a major overhaul to choose between more immediate modest changes and more far-reaching changes that will take longer to win.

Assessment and Accountability Issues

Obama's call for the use of more than standardized tests could strengthen support in Congress for provisions in the new law to allow multiple measures, including local and classroom-based assessments, for determining school progress, and to provide states with financial aid for developing new assessment systems. Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon incorporated similar provisions into the House discussion draft they crafted in 2007 (see Examiner, Oct. 2007; The idea, however, faces opposition from many core defenders of NCLB in and out of Congress.

Congress and the new administration will certainly demand some version of accountability. The FairTest-led Forum on Educational Accountability has detailed ways to overhaul accountability in line with the Joint Statement. These emphasize the need for accountability to support school improvement. (See FEA reports and legislative recommendations, on the web at and Congressional staffers are considering the FEA's approach on various issues, but how those would fit with other, often regressive proposals backed by powerful forces is another unknown.

NCLB hard-liners such as Education Trust and the Aspen Institute's Commission on NCLB seek to retain if not intensify the current accountability regime. While most of them recognize the need for flexibility in some details of sanctions, they still support the current structure of using test results to trigger a fixed set of punishments. In fact, the Bush Administration recently issued new regulations that give limited flexibility to states, and the Miller-McKeon draft incorporated the idea. Both focused on allowing adjustments to sanctions based on whether one, a few or most groups did not make AYP, and how far they were from making AYP.

One other major assessment issue looms, though it is not likely to pass Congress. The conservative Fordham Foundation and others are now proposing a national test based on national standards. The idea of a national test has gained political attention several times in the past 15 years, without reaching a critical mass of support (see Examiner, Jan. 2007; This idea may progress outside of NCLB: the Gates Foundation is planning to develop an exam they will encourage states to adopt by providing it to them at no cost.