As you may have read, we have another genuinely bipartisan bill in Congress. It’s the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee’s legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now named No Child Left Behind.
It’s a big bill and undoubtedly raises many issues. The most controversial — and for the purposes of this blog, most important — concern Title I, originally Education for the Disadvantaged. The bill modifies requirements that have triggered attacks on No Child from various quarters.
But, in my view, it’s as notable for what it doesn’t do as what it does. I’ll deal here with the inflammatory testing issue. Expect a followup on how Title I would — or wouldn’t any more — targeted funding to schools with unusually high concentrations of students in poverty.
Standardized Tests and Consequences
Title I, in its No Child form, supposedly ushered in the testing regime that school districts have imposed — to the vocal distress of many classroom teachers, the unions that represent them and a growing number of parents.
No Child itself doesn’t require all that many tests — reading/language arts and math annually from third through eighth grade and once in high school, plus three science tests during these years.
What got the testing regime — and thus the anti-test fervor — going were the actions the law requires districts to take when a school’s scores fail to indicate “adequate yearly progress” toward full proficiency for virtually all students by 2014.
A four-year shortfall could mean replacing school staff and/or taking control away from school-level administrators. Another year and the school would have to be restructured, e.g., by firing most or all of the staff, turning the school into a charter school.
One can see why schools started testing much more frequently — and gearing curricula to boosting scores on the mandated tests. Why districts started using the scores to evaluate teachers is a bit more complex.
No Child itself doesn’t require this. But the U.S. Department of Education has used its considerable leverage to make test scores an important part of the evaluations that determine which teachers will be rewarded — and which ultimately fired.
It did this first by limiting its newly-created Race to the Top grants to states that agreed to use such evaluations and then by making them a condition of the waivers that a large majority of states and the District of Columbia have had to seek because schools weren’t hitting their AYP targets.
Testing in the Senate Bill
The Senate bill does several things that may result in less frequent testing, “teaching to the test” and the like. It grants states more flexibility. Natch. They can design their own accountability systems, using standardized test scores as they choose. Use them they must, however.
They and the decision-makers in the districts can decide what to do about schools that don’t measure up, rather than having to choose from a menu of increasingly drastic actions.
The federal government will have some grant money to help them, but it’s expressly prohibited from dictating specific steps — just as it’s expressly prohibited from using its leverage to promote cross-state standards like the now-maligned Common Core.
Still Tests, Broken-Out Scores and Public Reporting
Though states would gain some flexibility, the bill preserves the core purpose of Title I — equal education opportunities for low-income students and those, regardless of income, who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, have disabilities and/or are learning English as a second language.
It does that in part by preserving two of No Child’s major advances. One requires school districts to include at least 95% of each of these groups in their mandated testing. The other requires them to publicly report scores separate for each.
The “disadvantaged” students used to be left behind — and their neglect hard to prove, even when known — in part because school districts could report a single score per school. They could — and in some cases, did — excuse some of the “disadvantaged” from having to take the tests or otherwise exclude them so as to keep them from dragging down the scores.
The bill won’t allow schools to revert to obfuscations of this sort. So anyone interested will still be able to know whether each of the specified disadvantaged groups has learned whatever the standards call for — and how they’re faring in comparison to their white, higher-income, native-born and non-disabled peers.
The bill also preserves a related accountability measure — the requirement that states allow students to take the tests used for the National Assessment of Education Progress. These tests are the same for the same grade levels throughout the country and remain relatively consistent over time.
NAEP can thus report quite reliable long-term trends. And it does so for individual states, with some relevant break-outs, e.g., by race, ethnicity and eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals — a common surrogate for low family income.
What this means is that there will still be a way to gauge the tests states themselves use to test core competencies — and to a limited extent, such progress as they report for some of the disadvantaged groups that President Johnson hoped would get a “passport from poverty” through “quality and equality in … [their] schooling.”