As you very likely remember, No Child Left Behind, the much hated 2002 version of the federal education law—the one Jonathan Kozol once called “the federal testing law”— was reauthorized last December. Now instead we have the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). There is widespread agreement that nearly fifteen years’ of test-based accountability has failed to raise overall student achievement; flat and declining scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress confirm that failure. Neither has the annual testing and disaggregation of scores resulted in the diminishing of achievement gaps. But the federal government doesn’t shift direction so easily. Here is a quick update on what is happening as the rules that will implement the new law are being developed.
There is one bright spot: In the new law, Congress eliminated any federal mandate to tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores. The U.S. Department of Education had made it a requirement that states applying for federal waivers from the worst punishments of NCLB could qualify for waivers only if they agreed to pass state laws to tie teacher evaluation to what have been called Value Added Measures—VAM algorithims that try to calculate the amount of learning each teacher “adds” to the overall education of each student. The American Statistical Association, the American Educational Research Association and a number of academic researchers have demonstrated that VAM scores not only fail to measure many qualities of excellent teachers, but also are inaccurate and unstable from year to year. It is possible that Congress listened to the experts—more likely that it listened on this one issue at least to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and many others who pointed to obviously flawed low VAM ratings for many award-winning teachers and to the collapse of morale among teachers across the United States.
While Congress eliminated the federal push to evaluate teachers by students’ scores, it could not undo the teacher-evaluation laws passed in recent years across the states to qualify for federal waivers. Hawaii, at least, has now begun to undo the damage, according to a mid-May report from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald: “Educators in Hawaii just became a little more powerful. The State Board of Education unanimously approved recommendations Tuesday effectively removing standardized test scores as a requirement in the measurement of teacher performance…. The recommendations… will offer more flexibility to incorporate and weigh different components of teacher performance evaluation, although the option to use test scores in performance evaluations remains.”
Apart from teacher evaluation, however, not much about test-and-punish has really changed. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed rules for the implementation of ESSA and there has been considerable argument from Republican leaders in Congress who want to turn more authority over to states, while the Obama administration wants to keep the federal government strongly involved.
Here is the explanation of Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The law requires states to continue administering standardized math and reading tests to students in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But it also gave states a new opportunity to include other non-test measures, such as access to advanced coursework and rates of chronic absenteeism, in judging schools. Under the regulations released Thursday, states would be required to wrap all of those various indicators into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to provide parents with clear, easy-to-understand information about school performance… The previous education law, No Child Left Behind, prescribed sanctions for schools that failed to meet test score targets. The Every Student Succeeds Act takes a different approach, allowing states to decide how to intervene in struggling schools as long as those interventions are ‘evidence based.'”
One thing is clear from press reports: the conversation remains centered pretty much in the weeds of the details of outcomes-based accountability—measuring schools’ success in meeting demands for higher test scores. Here is how Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes the proposed rules to implement ESSA: “The proposed regulations, among other things, would require states to ensure that school districts are implementing ‘accountability’ systems based on multiple measures. The states have a lot of discretion on how those systems should be constructed but not total, with the federal government requiring that states ‘assign a comprehensive, summative rating for each school to provide a clear picture of its overall standing’….”
As the new law was debated in Congress last fall, the National Education Association lobbied hard for at least the inclusion of “input” measures as part of school evaluation to make it possible to consider each school’s real capacity to meet the demand for higher scores. This would have shifted the measure of accountability toward the consideration of a school’s resources. The goal was to find a way to let districts expose inequity in things like class size, number of counselors and support staff, and financial resources available per-child from district to district. States can still include such measures as part of their multiple-measure-accountability ratings, but it is unlikely to happen unless Congress pushes harder. After all, that would shift the blame—and test-based accountability is a blame game—to the states that refuse to distribute funding equitably and persist in shorting the school districts that serve the poorest children. And while states are now federally required to intervene in low-scoring schools, there is no evidence that the focus will shift from punitive interventions like closing or charterizing schools and firing educators, and no evidence that states will feel pressed to invest in the poorest schools.
One thing is clear. In its proposed rules, the Obama Department of Education strongly discourages opt-outs by parents protesting the testing regime. Strauss explains: “With a testing ‘opt out’ movement that has been growing in recent years, the department spells out a series of punitive options states should take in an attempt to get schools to ensure a 95 percent student participation rate on federally required state-selected standardized tests.” It remains unclear what the consequences would be for higher rates of opting out. Strauss continues: “Under NCLB and now under ESSA, at least 95 percent of eligible students are required to take the state-chosen standardized test used to hold states and school districts ‘accountable.’ Last year, some states did drop below 95 percent, and in recent months the Education Department has been sending letters to states with ‘suggestions’ of how to handle schools that can’t drum up 95 percent support. It also said federal funds could be withheld from states that did not deal effectively with opt outs.” Although it is clear that the Department of Education discourages opting out, what the federal government will do about it remains unknown.
Public comment will be accepted on the draft rules until August 1, 2016.