Blog: The Educated Reporter

Congress Moves a (Big) Step Closer to Rewriting No Child Left Behind

A congressional compromise is at hand to rewrite No Child Left Behind, removing many of the more onerous provisions of the federal education law while giving states greater flexibility in accountability.

While the “Every Student Achieves” bipartisan bill announced Tuesday still has significant hurdles to clear before passage, it’s certainly the closest Congress has come to an agreement on revising the education law in nearly a decade.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal mechanism for funding the nation’s public schools, was due for reauthorization more than eight years ago. NCLB is the current iteration of that law.

As Education Week’s Politics K-12 reported first, the compromise bill is being sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington). While there will certainly be negotiations behind closed doors to revise key aspects, the existing language offers plenty of important signals.

The bill would require states to continue disaggregating student performance data by subgroups including minority, low-income, and special education status. But states would have more flexibility in how those accountability systems were designed, and how struggling schools would be identified and supported. (Here’s something that’s not in the current bill: Alexander dropped his school choice proposal to have federal Title I dollars, which are earmarked for the poorest kids, follow a student who transfers to another campus such as a charter school.)

Annual testing of all students in grades 3-8 as well as grade 11, a central tenet of NCLB, would remain a requirement. Some policymakers had argued that “grade span” testing — such as one assessment in elementary, middle and high school — would be sufficient. 

But education researchers and policy analysts warned that such a move would be a massive setback. Bellwether Education Partner’s Chad Aldeman, writing in the New York Times, warned that such a move would result in large numbers of “invisible students” who are likely to be already underserved minorities:

The grade-span approach would eviscerate the ability to look at particular groups of students within schools. Instead of having multiple grades over which schools could compile results, each school would be held responsible only for the performance of students in a single grade. Not only would this lower the quality of the data, but it would also raise the stakes of the tests: If you think the stakes are too high now, imagine being a fifth grader in a school where your score determines the results of the entire school.

That being said, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, was disappointed the new bill didn’t cut back the annual testing schedule.

“Are you going to give that third grader some relief from test and punish?” she told the New York Times. “Under this proposal, they still have to take just as many tests.”

“Punish” is a loaded word in the context of NCLB. The law’s requirements that states use standardized test scores to identify their lowest-performing schools, and sanction them if improvement didn’t happen fast enough, was arguably the most contentious provision of the law. But for the majority of the nation’s public schools, that’s no longer a concern. Frustrated by the glacial congressional pace of NCLB’s reauthorization, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan established the waiver process as a means of motivating states to implement key reform measures such as evaluating teacher performance. Currently 42 states and the District of Columbia have waivers in place releasing them from most of NCLB’s stricter student achievement requirements. It also gives states greater flexibility in allocating their federal education dollars, including money that previously had to be set aside for initiatives like tutoring and school choice. 

So what’s next for the bipartisan bill? It’s headed to the Senate’s education committee next week for markup. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the bill tackles a sizable controversy head-on: the Common Core State Standards. These grade-level expectations for what students will know and be able to do in math and English language arts, adopted by more than 40 states, began as a bipartisan compact among the nation’s governors. But the standards are now widely mischaracterized by critics as a federal mandate. Lauren Camera (one-half of the dynamic Politics K-12 duo) laid out how Alexander and Murray handled it:

As for standards, the bill simply outlines that states must establish “challenging academic standards for all students,” and, as expected, it name-checks the Common Core State Standards and clarifies that the federal government can play no role in the process of states choosing standards.

Here’s how the summary explains it:

“The bill affirms that states decide what academic standards they will adopt, without interference from Washington. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. States will be free to decide what academic standards they will maintain in their states.”