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.