Uncertainty Marks ESEA Reauthorization Efforts: Your Actions Matter

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2011

Can Congress pass a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2011? What would a new federal law look like? While it is too early to tell, some possibilities exist for significant progress in rolling back the damage to teaching and learning caused by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Not surprisingly, forces that favor continuing NCLB are gearing up. As always, the end result will depend on what advocates on all sides do. Your actions will matter! This article will explore emerging options on key issues.

A range of outcomes for ESEA is possible. (NCLB is the current version of the long-standing ESEA.) Optimistically, we could see a reduced testing mandate, some funding for schools to create better assessments, the end of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP), no requirement to use student scores to judge teachers, and federal support for rational improvement efforts in needy schools. On the pessimistic side, we could see increased testing, no support for real assessment improvement, reinforcement of the Administration’s four misguided “turnaround” models, perpetuation of some form of AYP with stringent sanctions, and teacher and administrator evaluation rules which require states to make “significant” use of student test scores to judge educators.

If it acts this year, Congress could write a combination of these and other elements into a new ESEA. In all cases, there will be insufficient funding. And even in an optimistic scenario, too much attention will remain focused on standardized testing. However, the intensity and extent of testing and accountability requirements could vary a great deal.

Testing reform advocates must build support for the recommendations of the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, chaired by FairTest) and other alliances such as Save Our Schools and Parents Across America. Activists also must strongly oppose the dangerous plans to increase testing promoted by powerful corporations, many large foundations, and their allies.

Here are some of the possibilities that seem to be emerging in Congress:

Amount of testing. NCLB mandates annual statewide reading and math testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, plus science testing in three grades. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education Committee, has indicated he believes this is too much. In conversations with FairTest and allies, Republican House staffers appear willing to consider reducing that mandate. However, the Chamber of Commerce and many business groups want to retain the current requirements and even increase them. FEA seeks a reduction to a level such as the 1994 education law requirement to test once each in grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12 in reading and math. To date, the Senate has not considered such an option.

Support for improved assessment. The U.S. Department of Education allocated $330 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds for two multi-state consortia to create new standardized tests based on the Common Core standards in reading and math. This largely silenced Congressional discussion about testing quality. (FairTest concludes the new tests are unlikely to be much improved from current ones, though there will be many more, and they will largely be administered on computers; see Examiner, May 2010). We are finding some interest among staff in both houses and parties in funding local efforts to improve assessment. This could be hard to win, given the very tight federal budget, a general lack of understanding about assessment in Congress, current NLCB funding for state tests, and the existence of the consortia.

Adequate yearly progress (AYP) and its structure of sanctions. Under AYP rules, 80% or more of U.S. schools will soon be labeled “failing.” Much evidence, such as stagnant National Assessment of Educational Progress score trends, shows this test-and-punish approach does not improve learning outcomes. Congress is likely to eliminate AYP– but it could reappear in a modified, renamed form. The Obama administration wants to scrap it, as do virtually all education groups. The administration would replace AYP with “goals” that high school graduates be “college and career ready” – but with no consequences for most schools. The Chamber of Commerce and Education Trust, among others, are pushing hard for an AYP attached to a “college ready” goal. Still, majorities of Republicans and Democrats appear ready to end this requirement.

School “turnarounds.” The Obama administration focused School Improvement Grants (SIG), with hundreds of millions of RTTT dollars, on the lowest-scoring 5% of schools in each state. The Education Department concocted four “turnaround models” that SIG recipients had to follow. Its reauthorization “Blueprint” proposes to enact those models into law. Researchers have pointed out there is little to no evidence to support the four models, and they cannot work in rural and many urban areas. There is good evidence to support other approaches to school improvement. The House, particularly Republicans, seems unlikely to accept the four models, even as it probably will agree to focus improvement efforts on a small percentage of low-scoring schools. The Senate has a Democrat majority which wants to support some of the “Blueprint,” and, with some Republican support, may well include the four models. It may also allow some sort of fifth (or sixth) model or other modifications.

recommends a very different approach to “turnarounds” based on extensive research and experience. Identified schools would have to focus their SIG funds on a limited set of key areas known to be essential for improvement, but there would be local discretion in deciding how to address them.

Many civil rights groups have expressed concern that with the likely end of AYP and the focus on the “bottom 5%,” too many schools that need help will not get it. An alliance of 15 organizations has called for focused attention on the lowest-scoring 25%, but without endorsing AYP or the four models. It remains very unclear what if anything Congress might do in this situation, given the failure of NCLB’s sanctions and the lack of funds for more extensive assistance.

Teacher evaluation. RTTT bribed a growing number of states to judge their teachers based “significantly” on student test scores (see article this issue). Thus far, it seems Congress is reluctant to force states to take such steps, though the Chamber of Commerce and other well-heeled groups are pushing hard on this issue. As of now, it appears there may be some language on teacher evaluation, but it likely will not mandate any particular use of student scores. This issue needs close monitoring and constant pressure on Congress.

A focus on improvement? In response to the failure of NLCB, “help not punishment” has become the new mantra in Congress. But beyond a focus (for good or bad) on the “turnarounds,” what can Congress provide? There has been some interest in a pilot project for state-level “School Quality Reviews” (SQRs) to evaluate performance and provide guidance for improvement. FairTest supports SQRs as a potentially valuable form of public accountability and assistance. FEA supports some form of qualitative evaluations, the Education Department’s “Blueprint” mentioned it in passing, and some states such as Kentucky already are using federal funds to support a limited SQR, so something could happen at the margins of the law with very modest funding.

Money. Socio-economic status remains the strongest predictor of student achievement. International studies find, for example, that middle and upper income students in the U.S. do about as well as students in other wealthy nations. But low-income US students fare far less well – and the US has vastly more students in poverty than do Western European nations. Despite this, extensive federal and state reductions in social programs are looming, and educational funding is likely to remain flat.

All this bodes very badly for public schools and student learning. What ESEA does with testing and accountability can make this situation worse – or start to ameliorate the damage NCLB has already inflicted.