NCLB Legislative Battles Begin

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - April 2007

As House and Senate education committees begin work on reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), scheduled to expire this year, a long list of organizations has submitted often starkly different proposals for NCLB's reauthorization. NCLB is the current version of the long-standing Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

FairTest has led the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) to craft legislative language based on the Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind and its new paradigm of "Redefining Accountability" (all at With reauthorization efforts accelerating, FairTest is alerting activists to weigh in with their Congressional delegation and the committees, to oppose the most harmful aspects of the law, and to support a positive federal role as articulated by the Joint Statement and the FEA [].

Members of Congress have also jumped into the fray to influence the House and Senate committees. Ten Democratic senators signed a letter to the education committee drawing attention to the law's flaws in language echoing that of FairTest and many other critics. Meanwhile, some 50 Republicans voiced support for the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (A-PLUS), a proposal to send education money to the states with few accountability measures attached. A-PLUS is viewed as a nonstarter but indicates growing Republican resistance to the intrusiveness of NCLB.

The FEA legislative proposal [] reduces mandated testing and bolsters local assessments. It removes the current "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) requirements and replaces them with a growth model based on multiple sources of evidence. It also shifts accountability from punishment for failure to make test score gains to support for systemic educational improvement, including professional development and support for family involvement. (See "A New Paradigm," this issue, for more detail.)

Recognizing that there will be a federal law and that it should support, not undermine, public education, many groups are submitting specific legislative language, releasing public statements and visiting their Congressional delegations to push for changes (see "Bumper Crop of Proposals," this issue). Among them are the National Education Association, National School Boards Association, National Council of Teachers of English and other groups seeking significant positive changes in the law.

The National Conference of State Legislatures remains strongly opposed to the current law, while the Council of Chief State School Officers, representing state superintendents of education, has grown increasingly critical. Meanwhile, groups such as the Aspen Commission on NCLB, Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce and Education Trust, along with President George W. Bush, have called for more extreme versions of the current NCLB, with expanded testing and harsher consequences. For example, the Commission on NCLB has proposed that teachers whose student test scores do not increase fast enough would be barred from teaching in Title I-funded schools. (See FairTest react to Commission on NCLB report Some proposals even call for a new national test (see Examiner, January 2007).

Civil rights groups are somewhat split: Many signed the Joint Statement, but a few are strong proponents of current accountability requirements, at least in principle.

Also noteworthy are some high-profile conservatives who have turned from strong supporters to skeptics on NCLB, including the Fordham Institute's Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli. Petrilli wrote, "Speaking personally, I've gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair." However, Fordham has reiterated its support for a regime of tests and sanctions - it mainly opposes the level of detailed prescriptions in the current law.

Congressional action starts

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, chair of the education committee, has called for the committee to complete its work on the new law by the end of May. In this rushed timetable, advocates for NCLB reform were asked to submit proposed legislative language by the end of March. The idea is for the Senate to vote on a bill in the summer. The House committee, chaired by Democrat George Miller, also seeks a bill this summer. If that happens, the two chambers could reconcile their differences by the end of the year.

Some critics believe Kennedy and Miller are pushing to pass legislation quickly because opposition to NCLB continues to grow. With intensifying partisan disagreement, intra-party disputes, and a weakening president, that opposition could lead to a complete deadlock, with no new legislation until after the 2008 presidential election.