The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, known currently as No Child Left Behind, NCLB) is eight years overdue. Each chamber of Congress has introduced multiple bills over the last seven years in an attempt to find common ground, but without success. The leadership in the new Congress has indicated both in words and action that they intend to pass a bill this year.
To get the process started, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a draft bill in early January. He is soliciting comments, due on February 2, from other members of Congress and the public and has scheduled three congressional hearings on specific areas of concern.
The bill, based on legislation Alexander introduced in the last Congress, makes some major changes to current law. Tops among those changes include elimination of the current state accountability system based on “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) and options to replace the NCLB requirement of grades 3 through 8 annual testing in reading and math and testing in those subjects once in grades 9 through 12.
The annual testing requirement has been quite controversial since its implementation, with questions about what the tests measure and whether they have improved results for students. Senator Alexander has asked stakeholders to comment on one of two options for final inclusion in the bill when it is introduced.
The first option would require states to adopt an assessment system that could include an array of options, including annual testing, grade-span testing (testing once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12), a hybrid of those plans, performance-based assessments, formative assessments, multiple state assessments within a year that result in a summative score, or any other system of assessment the state deems appropriate. Option Two maintains the current statewide testing scheme with one significant change. An individual school district would be allowed to administer its own assessments if the district receives permission from the state and the locally-designed test meets the same criteria as the statewide test. Both options include provision for alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities and also alternate assessments based on grade-level standards. One important difference is lifting the current cap of 1 percent on testing students on alternate assessments based on alternate standards, although the IEP team would still have a key role in deciding which students receive these assessments based on specific guidelines.
The elimination of AYP represents a critical difference from current law. In NCLB, adequate yearly progress is the measure by which all schools are held accountable for student performance, including a requirement of 100 percent proficiency for all students, In place of AYP, states would develop their own accountability systems that track student achievement, provide disaggregated data by student subgroups including students with disabilities, and take into account high school graduation rates based on a four-year adjusted cohort and extended-year graduation.
Current law includes an elaborate system for states to identify and work with low-performing schools, including measures some critics have viewed as quite punitive. Under the proposed bill, states would identify schools receiving ESEA-Title I funds “in need of strategies for improving student achievement and any other measures determined appropriate by the state.” Rather than the NCLB list of school improvement requirements, states would have leeway to determine strategies for assisting low-performing schools. The ESEA waivers awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to most states over the last several years required states to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools (“priority”) for intensive interventions and another 10 percent (“focus”) for more targeted assistance. The Alexander bill does not specify how many or what type of schools must be identified.
The Alexander bill includes another major change to current law: elimination of the “highly qualified teacher” (HQT) provision. In lieu of HQT, states would provide assurance that teachers meet state certification or licensure requirements. In addition, states would not be required to develop teacher evaluation systems, although funds under Title II of ESEA (teacher/principal training and professional development) could be used for this purpose. As a condition of receipt of ESEA waivers, states were required to develop evaluation systems.
Regarding the timing of the reauthorization of ESEA, the release of the Senate bill was the first step in the process. Chairman Alexander has said he would like to have a bill to the HELP Committee by mid-February. The ranking Democratic member on the committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), has very definite views as a former educator and parent advocate. Therefore, negotiations are ongoing between Republican and Democratic staff, in the hope that the bill that comes before the HELP Committee can be a bipartisan effort. On the House side, Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, has also said he would like to move a bill quickly. As the starting point, his staff is reviewing and revising the “Student Success Act” which passed the House in the last session of Congress. That bill did not have the support of Democrats on the Committee, and it is unclear at this time if the Chairman will move a similar bill without bipartisan support.
LDA staff has read the Alexander bill carefully and has updated the organization’s recommendations to Congress. Over the last seven years’ attempts to reauthorize the law, LDA has updated these recommendations three times and continues to monitor every congressional action on a daily basis. This includes regular meetings with congressional staff, work with coalition partners, and constant communications between LDA staff and members of the Public Policy Committee. We will continue to update you through the LDA Legislative News and LDA Today, as well as through Action Alerts to LDA members as those are warranted.