Bumper Crop of Proposals to Revise NCLB

K-12 Testing

If Congress craves advice on how to fix NCLB, there's no lack of organizations vying to provide it. Many of the groups' proposals, such as those from the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) take aim at the law's most glaring problems, such as the widely criticized requirement for 100% proficiency on state tests. The high-profile report from the Aspen Commission on NLCB, on the other hand, stands out for proposing changes that would make NCLB even more punitive and less supportive of strategies that would build local school capacity for progress.

FairTest examined proposals from many prominent groups and compared their recommendations with those of the FEA. FEA's recommendations are based on the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB.

Proposals from 11 groups were considered and are summed up in a chart (chart p 1, chart p2): the FEA, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the National Education Association (NEA), the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the Harvard Civil Rights Project (HCRP), the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Commission on NCLB, Education Trust, and a joint statement from the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

Most exhibit varying degrees of consensus on some key issues, with the Commission and Education Trust being the exceptions. For example, all but those two groups recommend incorporating "multiple measures" as opposed to relying strictly on state standardized test results to determine adequate yearly progress. Even the Commission and Education Trust, however, join the consensus view that NCLB should allow for some form of "growth models" instead of (or as an option to) the current system of uniform benchmarks for all students.

Though not included in the chart, several other groups make recommendations that align with the Joint Statement and the FEA:

- The National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition [http://www.nreac.org/bulletin/nreac_2007_legislative_agenda.aspx] (whose members include two Joint Statement endorsers, the American Association of School Administrators and the National Rural Education Association) recommends that NCLB be changed so that students are "treated as individuals under [state] assessment systems and with an emphasis on growth, improvement and closing achievement gaps."

- The Institute for Language and Education Policy [http://www.elladvocates.org] which advocates for English language learners and is a signer of the Joint Statement, similarly echoes the FEA's approach: "Rather than taking a punitive approach, accountability must serve to build schools' capacity to serve students, especially in areas where many schools are weak, such as educating ELLs."

- The Council for Exceptional Children [http://www.cec.sped.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home], another Joint Statement signatory, also offered recommendations that incorporate many of the FEA's proposals.

Organizations' Positions
As always, the devil is in the details. Some issues that at first blush seem to have consensus look very different when it comes to the nitty-gritty. Note that the NEA, NSBA, and ASCD are signers of the Joint Statement. Also, the Commission on NCLB's recommendations are largely shared by the Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce and Education Trust.

o Ending, limiting or reducing sanctions: Central to the FEA recommendations is a shift in NCLB's focus from imposing sanctions based on test scores to holding schools accountable for making systemic improvements that improve achievement. Three other groups, ASCD, the NEA and HCRP, lean toward the FEA on this, with ASCD, for example, saying "intervention decisions are local decisions that must be based on the unique circumstances of each district." Rather than ending or reducing sanctions based on test scores, the NSBA, NCSL and NGA/CCSSO/NASBE seek more flexibility in applying sanctions. For example, the NGA group advocates allowing states more control over accountability determinations and consequences. The Commission on NCLB and Education Trust diverge from the consensus, seeking even more federal control and harsher sanctions. The Commission, for example, would require schools to replace teachers whose students' rate of improvement on tests is not fast enough.

o Relying on state standardized tests vs. including local assessments: The FEA advocates including local assessments as a way to obtain higher quality and more educationally useful evidence of student achievement. Again, ASCD, the NEA and HCRP echo the FEA's call for multiple measures. The NCSL also puts in a plug for multiple measures, and the NGA group says that NCLB should "promote and support the use of multiple measures aligned to state standards to determine student progress." The NSBA offers the modest reform of allowing the results of retests to count toward AYP, calling this "multiple assessments." Neither the Commission nor Education Trust see a need to move away from relying on state tests.

o Growth models: Every one of these groups gives a nod toward the idea of "growth models," though there is a range of views on how such growth models would be designed and implemented. The FEA's vision is that adequate progress would mean a "positive trend in learning outcomes" using data from multiple indicators based on rates of improvement attained by a substantial portion of Title I schools. ASCD also explicitly calls for growth models to be based on multiple measures, to avoid repeating the flaw of the current system, which causes schools to focus too narrowly on test scores. The NEA cautions that growth models should be used to support classroom improvements, not to "penalize schools or teachers." The Commission, on the other hand, envisions a growth model that relies exclusively on state standardized test results, while the NGA group proposes that all states be eligible to use growth models, presumably based on state or state and local test results. The Commission and Education Trust would also require states to use growth in student test scores to evaluate teachers. The Commission calls for removing from Title I schools all teachers whose students' rates of score gains are in the bottom quartile, and Education Trust offers a similar proposal. These positions are contrary to the principles in the Joint Statement, and the NEA has stated complete opposition to the Commission proposal.

o Proficiency by 2014 and AYP: The FEA rejects the goal of 100% "proficiency" by 2014 as unrealistic and damaging. Similarly, the NEA calls the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) process for determining NCLB compliance "a fundamentally flawed system that fails to accurately measure student learning and school success." HCRP and the NCSL both call for a reevaluation of the AYP system and the 100% proficiency target, with the NGA group conceding that some "refinement" of the system might be necessary. The Commission, in contrast, focuses its concern on the variation in state standards for proficiency and suggests "voluntary model national content and performance standards and tests in reading or language arts, mathematics and science based on NAEP frameworks." Education Trust wants to preserve the current goal of 100% proficiency by 2014, though it adds the option of higher "college- and career-ready" standards that would extend NCLB's timeline by 12 years.

o Support for improving capacity and professional development: NCLB implicitly assumes that schools have the capacity to improve outcomes for all students and, if threatened with sanctions, will rise to the challenge of 100% proficiency. The FEA, on the other hand, recognizes the central role of high-quality professional development in improving the capacity of teachers and administrators to support student learning. Similarly, ASCD and the NEA highlight the importance of investing in professional development and increasing school capacity to engage in sustained improvement. While seeking enhanced state authority as a key to forcing school improvements, the NGA also notes that "meaningful school reform requires substantial resources and capacity."

o Flexibility for ELLs and disabled: Nearly every group we reviewed advocates some form of added flexibility for assessing the achievement of disabled students and English language learners. This includes the FEA, whose upcoming assessment report will elaborate on ways to improve assessments and thereby provide a more accurate picture of student learning. The NEA and the NSBA both recommend using disabled students' individualized education plans to guide assessment decisions, as does CEC; and the NCSL recommends giving the federal special education law, IDEA, primacy over NCLB in cases of conflict. The NGA group also recommends increased flexibility for these subgroups. Again, the Commission goes in a different direction, taking an even more restrictive approach to assessing disabled students than federal officials, who announced in April greater leeway for testing these students.

- The chart comparing the recommendations of the 11 groups is at http://www.fairtest.org/nclbreformchartp1.pdf and http://www.fairtest.org/nclbreformchartp2.pdf
- The National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition's recommendations are at http://www.nreac.org/bulletin/nreac_2007_legislative_agenda.aspx
- The Institute for Language and Education Policy's recommendations are at www.elladvocates.org
- See the Council for Exceptional Children's recommendations at