Congress Has Just Done Away with ESSA Accountability Rules: This Is Not a Tragedy

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a new reauthorization of the 1965 federal education law. NCLB imposed test-based accountability on all of America’s public schools. Because NCLB and its punitive, test-and-punish mechanism became so controversial, it took nearly 15 years for Congress to agree on what was supposed to be its routine five-year reauthorization. Finally late in 2015, Congress came up with a replacement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it really left much of NCLB intact—including annual high-stakes standardized testing and a sanctions-based—instead of a school improvement, investment-based—strategy for improving public education.

In new 2017 academic evaluation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reports, “Perhaps the most positive aspect of NCLB is that it generated huge amounts of data on student achievement in math and reading… A second positive component of NCLB, especially in the eyes of civil rights groups, is that schools are held accountable not only for the aggregate test scores of their students but also for the average test scores of subgroups of students whom they might otherwise ignore… A third arguably positive element of NCLB was its requirement that all teachers be ‘highly qualified.'”  In reality, however, there were serious problems with all these three things Ladd calls the law’s accomplishments. First another national test without high-stakes and punishments—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—already gathers plenty of data about our schools; second, NCLB never succeeded, as intended, in improving the achievement of the students in the subgroups it was supposed to help; and third, the law’s requirements for teachers, which later under the Obama administration, came to include strategies to fire teachers who couldn’t raise scores fast enough, have left the teaching profession demoralized.

Ladd also summarizes what she believes were the law’s serious flaws: “An initial problem with the test-based accountability of NCLB is that it is based on too narrow a view of schooling… NCLB… has narrowed the curriculum by shifting instruction time toward tested subjects and away from others… Further, NCLB has led to a narrowing of what happens within the math and reading instructional programs themselves… NCLB also encouraged teachers to narrow the groups of students they attend to… A second flaw is that NCLB was highly unrealistic and misguided in its expectations… A third major flaw is that NCLB placed significant pressure on individual schools to raise student achievement without providing the support needed to assure that all students had an opportunity to learn to the higher standards.”

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB didn’t really change most of these problems. It was still a test-and-punish law even though it turned responsibility over to the states to design the sanctions.  States were required to create their own school accountability plans and then get them approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Obama Department of Education under Secretary John King spent last year writing and implementing rules for how the states are supposed to proceed with their required ESSA plans, and currently, a little over a year after the law’s passage, the states are in the process of developing the plans which they are supposed to submit to the U.S. Department of Education either in April or next September.

Except that Congress just threw out the rules. The House acted in February, and the Senate just voted last week, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to eliminate the Obama administration’s ESSA accountability rules.  It is expected that President Trump will sign the legislation.

And actually not a great many people are upset.  That is because NCLB and ESSA have been so misguided and so unpopular.

Here is how Dana Goldstein, in the NY Times, describes some of the rules Congress just eliminated: “The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming.  The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.  Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was the one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.”  I believe the state report cards are a terrible idea, as they are almost guaranteed to produce low rankings for the schools in the poorest communities.  And there are a couple of problems with what’s called “the 95 percent rule.” The rule was very likely designed to prevent schools from sending home on test day the students likely to post low scores—English learners or students lagging academically, for example. But the same rule is also said to be aimed at preventing parents from opting their children out of testing as a protest. ESSA says it permits opting out, but the 95 percent rule seems contrary to what the ESSA law itself says.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter, further explains changes in the 95 Percent rule : “Under the NCLB law, schools that didn’t meet that (95 percent) threshold automatically failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress,’ or AYP.  Under ESSA, there’s no such thing as AYP.  So states get to decide how to factor test participation into a school’s overall rating… The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn’t meet the 95 percent threshold.  The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school’s overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement… Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 percent of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don’t meet that target.”

If this still sounds to you like too much worrying about test-and-punish and ranking and rating schools, you are not alone.  Here is Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher who blogs under the name Curmudgucation: “Lamar Alexander pointed forcefully at the rules hidden under the desk blotter and said, ‘Get that junk out of here.’ This week featured an assortment of testimonials both in favor of and opposed to the regulations. Conservative voices strongly favored the end of those regulations, finding them too restrictive and not allowing for states to opt out of the whole business. Well, some conservative voices—other conservative voices said, ‘Let’s keep at least some of them.’  Other voices said, ‘Hey, the history of States Rights when it comes to education is not exactly a history fraught with great success.’ And a smattering of voices said, ‘Good God—when Congress changes the rules every six months, it makes it really hard to run actual school systems.’  As I said at the top, there are no heroes to root for in this movie. The Obama regulations were far over and above the actual law and simply attempted to extend the same failed, unsupportable policies of the past fifteen years; they needed to go away. The regulations we get in their place will most likely provide the freedom for wholesale abuse, fraud, and social injustice in education….”

Diane Ravitch used her blog post on this matter to sound like the academic historian that is her identity at New York University: “No Child Left Behind introduced an unprecedented level of federal control of education, a function traditionally left to the states. The federal contribution of about 10% of overall education funding enabled the government via NCLB to set conditions, specifically to require that every child in grades 3-8 must be tested in reading and math every year. Based on test scores, teachers and principals have been fired, and schools have been closed for not reaching unrealistic targets. NCLB was an intrusive, misguided, evidence-free law that was uninformed by knowledge of children, communities and pedagogy. Arne Duncan twisted the screws on schools with his absurd Race to the Top. Education is not a race, and there is no top.  But once again the standardized tests became the measure and the purpose of education. After 15 years of NCLB and RTTT, there is a great deal of wreckage, demoralized teachers, and widespread teacher shortages. And if the point of all that testing was to reach the top of international tests and/or close the achievement gaps among groups it didn’t happen.”

We shall have to wait to see what Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education does about re-creating any rules and also what her staff does about enforcement. Bigger issues remain, however, than the ESSA rules. President Trump has said he will expand military spending with deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.  Programs threatened by these plans may be Title I and funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Protecting these programs must be a priority for those of us who worry about serving America’s most vulnerable students. And then there is  Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s other priority: privatizing education. These, not the ESSA regulations, are the key concerns.

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals.” “States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”

Please Testify in State Hearings on ESSA Plans: Point Out the Road Away from Test-and-Punish

Last December’s newly reauthorized federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, uses the power of the federal government to continue holding states and schools and school districts accountable for raising students’ test scores. However, Congress turned some of the control for how all this will work back to the states, who no longer have to follow so many federal prescriptions but who still have to present an accountability plan and tell the U.S. Department of Education what they are going to do to improve the lowest scoring schools. Gone are No Child Left Behind’s demands that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress; gone are mandatory turnarounds such as school closure and privatization for so-called “failing” schools; gone is the federal requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a substantial portion of formal teacher evaluations.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) demands that states come up with their own accountability plans which they must submit for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. What this means is that there is a window for change, but it must bubble up spontaneously across the 50 states. If public school supporters are to achieve any kind of policy that is more supportive and less punitive, we are going to have to organize and begin working for long-term change in the culture of punitive, test-and-punish accountability that has been normalized over the past two decades.

Where to start?  A good rule to remember, if you get a chance to testify to any kind of hearing on the plan ESSA says your state must develop, is that the hearing is a good place to present the core principles that underpin your understanding of the mission and importance of well funded and equitable public schools.  The U.S. Department of Education itself accepted comments, about 20,000 of them, until the beginning of August on the rules it is developing to implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act.  One of these comments, submitted by the Vermont State Board of Education, raises some of the most important concerns as states develop the plans they will be submitting.  Although we don’t yet even know whether the federal Department of Education will correct the Department’s draft rules to ameliorate the problems the Vermont letter identifies, Vermont’s State Board of Education models a way to speak to some of the most basic problems in current accountability-centered school policy.

The Vermont letter begins by attacking the very premises of test-and-punish school reform: “Our Board is proud to represent a state where the people support a strong state funding system, enjoy schools that foster high student performance and register narrow equity gaps as compared with the nation. Nevertheless, the opportunity gap is our most pressing concern and is the number one goal in our strategic plan. With these traditions and values in mind, we have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools. With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test scores gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools. Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”  No matter the politics of your state, and even if you think the people in your legislature or Department of Education are faithful testers-and-punishers, in the testimony you present you should repeat what the Vermont Board says here.  We must begin proclaiming these values and repeating them across every state.

What specific concerns with the Every Student Succeeds Act does the Vermont letter raise?

  • Education and Accountability is More Than Test Scores: The Narrowness of the Measures”  The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states submit plans that continue to be grounded in standardized-test-based evidence of student achievement—emphasizing each school district’s graduation rate and test scores in two subjects: “The plan relies on what we can easily measure, rather than on what is important. By requiring that test scores in two subjects and graduation rates be given preferential weight, we discourage schools from supporting truly broad opportunities to learn and the skills necessary for a healthy society. In a world where violence and terrorism command the news, the education of our youth to participate in a strong civic life in a democracy is a fundamental skill.” ESSA requires an emphasis on test scores, but the law itself permits states to be creative in the way they comply with the requirement that they begin using multiple measures to evaluate school quality.  As part of their accountability plans, states must each choose one or more additional factors (in addition to reading and math scores and graduation rates) by which they will evaluate schools. Here are just some examples of indicators states might choose to report: students’ attendance rates, the percentage of students with access to advanced coursework, students’ access to counselors and other support staff, the school district’s provision of foreign language and fine arts courses, per-pupil expenditures, number of children in pre-Kindergarten, the percentage of English learners who become proficient, and evidence of substitution of restorative rather than no-excuses discipline programs.
  • Summative Labels/Ranking Schools by a Single Score—ESSA requires states to inform the public on the state of education…. But the proposed federal rules propose combining all measures into a single score.  The result is an invalid measure with a false precision claiming to be transparent… (D)angerously, with this single measure being so highly test-based, the interaction of test scores with background factors systematically and invalidly penalizes the disadvantaged. The result is that our neediest children are stigmatized through negative labels while we deny them the essential resources… Limiting our vision to scalable attributes, risks the danger of not measuring valuable and important school factors.” It is to be hoped that widespread opposition to the Department of Education’s proposed draft federal rule that required a single summative score—despite the absence of such a requirement in the law itself—will soon have pushed the federal government to amend its draft rule. But single summative ratings are already the norm in many states which award schools and school districts a single grade—A, B, C, D, or F.  The states with school district grading systems are already in the habit of awarding “A” ratings to their richest suburban school districts and “F” ratings to poorer urban and rural schools. The statewide ESSA hearings are an important place to protest the use—in federal and state policy—of one overly simplistic and invalid summative rating or letter grade as a way to rate and evaluate schools.

Vermont’s additional comments relate to the way ESSA’s rules will affect its homogeneous population and very small rural school districts.

There is one important issue in ESSA’s rules which the Vermont State Board does not address, but which ought to be part of any testimony on your state’s ESSA plan. ESSA formally eliminates the federal policy, imposed via No Child Left Behind waivers, that states had to agree to rely on students’ standardized test scores for a significant percentage of formal evaluation of teachers. To get their waivers, states agreed to this provision by passing their own state laws that now need to be amended or overturned. We must testify against state laws that persist in tying our state teacher evaluation systems to standardized test scores even though the federal government no longer makes test-score-based teacher evaluation a requirement.

The American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association have both declared the “value-added model’ algorithms for evaluating teachers to be unreliable and unstable from year to year. There are many factors that affect growth in standardized test scores beyond any one teacher’s work. Test score-based evaluation of teachers has also served as a perverse incentive that drives good teachers in the poorest school districts to move to more affluent places where they will be said to be able to “produce” higher scores. There are far more effective ways to evaluate teachers including well established peer assistance and review programs. Teacher evaluation cannot be merely mechanical and must involve efforts not only to judge teachers but also to help them be more effective. There is wide agreement that plans to support and evaluate teachers must involve coaching, mentoring, time for collaboration, and support and evaluation by strong school leaders.

Consider the following definition of teaching by a seasoned trainer of teachers and a writer about education, Mike Rose: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others… Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity. You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s. Simultaneously you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers. How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on…. So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces of our culture.”

If we get an opportunity to offer testimony to try to help shape our state’s response to the new federal school accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, we ought to try move our society beyond a reductive obsession with test scores and blame to the kind of more human understanding Mike Rose describes of the meaning of education for our children, our teachers, and our society.

Monty Neill of FairTest Comments on ESSA Rules: You Can, Too

The rule-making process for the implementation of the new, federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a little deep into the policy weeds for most readers of this blog.  But until August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education is accepting public comments on the rules it has proposed, and some organizations with the expertise carefully to analyze the law itself and the Department’s proposed rules have been drafting and submitting comments.  FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has submitted a formal comment, and yesterday Valerie Strauss published in the Washington Post an explanation from Monty Neill, the organization’s executive director, about concerns at FairTest about ESSA.

Monty Neill is very familiar with the federal education law’s accountability philosophy and provisions.  In his piece yesterday in the Washington Post, he shares concerns about the rules now drafted by Secretary John King’s Department of Education, rules that will govern enforcement of school accountability. Overall Neill believes that the Obama administration’s Department of Education has proposed rules that yield too much power back to the federal government and undermine the ways in which Congress tried to return power to states for school accountability in the new law.  And test-and-punish accountability is far too prominent in the proposed rules.

Neill writes, “While the accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are superior to those of No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education’s draft regulations intensify ESSA’s worst aspects and will have the effect of perpetuating some of NCLB’s most damaging practices. The draft regulations over-emphasize testing, mandate punishments not required in law, and continue federal micromanagement. When the department makes decisions that should be set at the state and local level in partnership with local educators, parents, and students, it takes away local voices that ESSA restores.”  In his Washington Post column, Neill names five provisions in the draft rules that he believes need to be eliminated or amended.  I agree with Neill’s concerns, but I am reordering a bit as a way to indicate my own concerns about their importance.

  1. The proposed rules require (according to Neill’s third concern) that states come up with performance indicators for their schools and… combine the multiple indicators each state selects into a “single ‘summative’ score for each school.”  Neill writes: “As Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee pointed out, no such requirement is included in ESSA.  Summative scores are simplistically reductive and opaque. They encourage the sort of flawed school grading schemes promoted by diehard NCLB defenders.”  I will add my own concern here.  Congress, under much pressure from teachers and other supporters of public school improvement, left room for states to include some indicators of unequal opportunity-to-learn—disparities in resource inputs, not just test score outcomes. The requirement in the proposed rules demands that while states can choose indicators by which they judge school quality, they must, before they submit the rating, combine all the indicators into school-by-school “grades.”  Those overall “grades” will very likely mirror the current school grades (based merely on test scores) being awarded by too many states today.
  2. The law requires that states continue to identify the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools and the schools whose subgroups of students continue to test poorly.  The proposed rules (and here is Neill’s second concern) require states also to identify three or more levels of performance to differentiate the performance of schools across the state.  FairTest proposes that the regulations should scrap any reference to performance levels and allow states themselves to decide how to identify low-performing schools.
  3. For Neill, the top concern is the the proposed rules’ limitation of parents’ right to protest by opting their children out of testing. (I have moved it to third place.)  Here is how Neill describes his concern: “Most egregiously, the department would require states to lower the ranking of any school that does not test 95 percent of its students or to identify it as needing ‘targeted support.’  No such mandate exists in ESSA.”  Neill recommends that, “The department should simply restate ESSA’s language allowing the right to opt out as well as its requirements that states test 95 percent of students in identified grades and factor low participation rates into their accountability systems.”
  4. In the new rules, the Department of Education requires that a state’s academic indicators for accountability carry “much greater” weight than its “school quality” indicators (Neill’s fourth concern).  Neill recommends that the department leave the language of the law in place—that academic indicators count for more than (not much more than) 50 percent of a state’s school quality indicators.  Personally, I would like to see school quality indicators given perhaps additional weight, though that would depend on what school quality indicators are being used.  Ideally the federal government would be pressuring the states to invest in the poorest schools for equity and thereby improve the quality indicators in the poorest schools, but Congress itself, as it wrote the new ESSA, neglected to use the law as an opportunity to create incentives to promote states’ investments for equity.
  5. Finally  the implementation time line for accountability seems short (Neill’s fifth concern): “The department would require states to use 2016-17 data to select schools for ‘support and improvement’ in 2017-2018.  This leaves states barely a year for implementation, too little time to overhaul accountability systems.” Remember that the new law assigns to the states the responsibility for creating improvement plans for schools that struggle.

Although this all may seem overly technical, reading Neill’s concerns helps clarify at least some of the ways that ESSA remains, on the whole, a test-and-punish accountability law. While ideally states would find ways to invest in, improve, and support the schools in the poorest communities, the places where test scores—the primary measurement states will continue to use—are lowest, the danger is that states will continue to punish teachers and close and charterize so-called “failing” schools across America’s big city neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated.

You can submit your own comments to the U.S. Department of Education until August 1. Neill provides the instructions here: “The regulations are at https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032-0001.  To submit comments on the regulations, go to https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032.  FairTest even has a sample action alert response that you may copy and paste in to the Department’s comment form if you want to simply support FairTest’s comments.

Federally Mandated Test-and-Punish Didn’t Go Away with NCLB

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.

Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”

Diane Ravitch Sums Up Botched Bush-Obama Education Record

I urge you to read Solving the Mystery of the Schools, Diane Ravitch’s fine article in the March 24 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Ravitch reviews two important books, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize—the story of the plot hatched by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to charterize Newark’s schools—and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, but the most interesting part is Ravitch’s accurate, succinct, and devastating summary of public education policy in America during the Bush and Obama years.  This is Diane Ravitch the education historian summarizing the meaning of more than fifteen years of misguided policy.

Ravitch begins: “In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies.  Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests.”

The Bush era, marked by the passage and implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, is, of course, over. Here is Ravitch’s summary: “The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors.  In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school.  By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed.  In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.”

Ravitch also summarizes the major education initiatives of the Obama era, even though a few months are left before President Obama’s term ends.  She explains: “After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense.  Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms.  Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top…. In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies.  They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards).  They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to ‘turn around’ schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic.  The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever.”

In December, Congress rebuked Arne Duncan (who was by then leaving his position) by reauthorizing a version of the federal education law that significantly limits the power of the U.S. Secretary of Education.  But Ravitch is not optimistic there will be a change in the overall direction of federal education policy: “Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states.  ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education.  It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states.  What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.”

Both of the books Ravitch reviews are written by reporters who embedded themselves for four years in the places where they wanted to study education—Russakoff in Newark and Rizga at Mission High School in San Francisco. Both authors came to question the education orthodoxy of the Bush-Obama era.  Russakoff exposes the ideologically driven politics of the Christie-Booker effort to charterize Newark’s schools, and Rizga “realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools.  Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called ‘good’ schools.  Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who ware struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled ‘failing’ schools.”  San Francisco’s Mission High School serves 950 students from forty countries.

Ravitch concludes: “The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent.  Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools… But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to ‘save’ all children from lives of poverty and violence.  As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty… every day of their lives.”